“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.”
“Ye are standing this day all of you before the L’rd your G’d.
– Deuteronomy 29:9, JPS
Moshe speaks to the generation of B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) that will soon cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land, under the new leadership of Joshua. Moshe reassures the people that despite their transgressions in the wilderness, they are still “standing this day.” The Hebrew word used for stand in this verse is nitzavim, from the shoresh (root word) NZV, meaning to stand upright.
Moshe explains that they are gathered together, standing before H’Shem, “that thou shouldest enter (uvalaso) into the covenant of the L’RD thy G’d (Deuteronomy 29:11, JPS). The shoresh, AVR, meaning to enter, also means to cross over. The use of this word is apropos of B’nei Yisrael’s immanent crossing over the Jordan to Canaan. Figuratively speaking, they are crossing over as wanderers in the wilderness into the Covenant. The proclamation given by Moses in this passage is a renewal of the covenant.
The Zohar relates the phrase, “Ye are standing this day” to Rosh HaShannah. When we stand before H’Shem on Rosh HaShannah, the Day of Judgment, when we are judged for the year, the books are opened, and we hope to be judged favorably, so that we may cross over into a good year. Let us search and try our ways, and return to the L’RD (Lamentations 3:40, JPS), so that we may stand before Him, and be inscribed in the Book of Life.
“So we that are Thy people and the flock of Thy pasture will give Thee thanks for ever; we will tell of Thy praise to all generations.”
– Psalms 79:13, JPS 1917 Tanach
We are the sheep of your pasture, we will continue to express our gratitude, even as we suffer in exile (Psalm 79:13). L’dor vador, generation after generation, we will speak of our praise to H’Shem, despite our circumstances. For, the flow of time and history does not always appear to be favorable to us. While ostensibly, this seems to be the case, if deep within our hearts, we search in earnest, we shall find that all is for our ultimate good. As is implied elsewhere, that our journey is for our own good (Genesis 12:1).
How can we recognize this essential truth, in order to not backtrack upon our commitment made at Sinai – na’aseh v’nishmah (we will do, and we will understand)? Consider, that as we continue to observe the commandments, we will not only begin to better understand the nature of their benefit in our lives; rather, also, we will be able to comprehend how remaining on the derech (path) will continue to serve as a buttress against all the nisyanos (challenges) in our lives.
“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.
The study of the Mishnah encompasses a vast amount of detail, intricate discussions, and seemingly endless, yet finite possibilities in regard to halacha (Judaic law). Having finally begun this journey, after many years of intending to do so, I find my first endeavors intriguing, rewarding, and, fulfilling. I am already enriched by the experience. Thus, I am looking forward to continuing with this project.
What I realized is that there is an actual feeling of fulfillment for myself, in studying the Mishnah. My first impression was that the claim is true; in other words, that study of the Mishnah for the sake of honoring a loved one who has passed away is significant. If studying the Mishnah benefits the soul of the deceased, then, perhaps, there is also an affect on the soul of the one who studies. I find this to be true for myself, according to my own initial experience.
For, I feel a tangible sense of relief and renewal, now, after three years to the month after my father passed away. Up until this point, it is as if I had still been grieving for an extended period of mourning. Baruch H’Shem. Praise G-d for the light that may enter the soul through this effort. The letters that make up the word MiShNaH may be re-arranged to spell the word NeShaMaH. This is why the connection is made, in regard to the benefit of studying the Mishnah.
Light will transcend the darkness in our lives when we cast our gaze towards the flame of truth, the eishtamid (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.
“Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.”
– Psalm 51:4-5, JPS 1917 Tanach
Dovid HaMelech (King David) was constantly aware of the sins of his past. This awareness imbued him with humility, in the face of G-d’s righteousness. “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my supplanters [heels] compasseth me about” (Psalm 49:6, JPS 1917 Tanach). Literally, “the sins of my heels,” referring to the breaking of lesser mitzvoth, that people, figuratively speaking, tend to trample upon, mistakenly thinking that they are insignificant. Yet, even King David, was concerned, that he might be prevented from entering Olam Haba, because of the sins of the heels in his own life.
“Woe unto them that draw iniquity with cords of vanity, and sin as it were with a cart rope” (Isaiah 5:18, JPS 1917 Tanach). As is mentioned in Chok L’Yisrael, based on the Zohar Bereishis 198a, the phrase, “the cords of vanity,” is also likened to the sins of the heels. Additionally, the phrase, “cords of vanity,” seems reminiscent to me, of the prayer, Ana Bekoach, where a request is made to H’Shem, that He “untie the bundled sins.” These sins are traditionally understood to be the collective sins of Israel.
On this Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, may we, as well as all of Israel (K’lal Yisrael) be forgiven. Effectively, in due time, may this lead to our complete renewal as individuals. Furthermore, as a nation, may Israel’s redemption also be enacted through teshuvah. “And a redeemer will come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, Saith the L-RD. And as for Me, this is My covenant with them, saith the L-RD; My spirit that is upon thee, and My words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the L-RD, from henceforth and for ever” (Isaiah 59:20-21, JPS 1917 Tanach).
“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.
“What is meant by, ‘Surely he scorneth the scorners, but he giveth grace unto the lowly’ [Proverbs 3:34]? If one comes to defile himself, he is given an opening; if one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.” – Talmud Shabbos 104a
The Sages teach, based on the above Talmudic passage, and the configuration of the Hebrew letter, “hei,” that H’Shem will “give grace unto the lowly” to do teshuvah (repentance) through the narrow way. This is represented by the small space towards the top of the letter hei – ה – the narrow gate that leads towards teshuvah (repentance). On the other hand, “surely he scorneth scorners” can be understood to mean that G-d will also give occasion to those whose way is stubbornly opposed to following G-d’s word. The scorners are bent on following their own way that leads to “defilement;” for them, the way is broad, symbolized by the broad space at the bottom of the letter hei: ה.
“Know whence you came and to where you are going and before Whom you are destined to give a final accounting.” – Pirkei Avos 3:1