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.

Omer Count: Day 3 – the Harmony of Kindness

Omer Day 3 tiferes within chesed (beauty within love)

The nature of tiferes, in terms of its expression as a middah (character trait), can best be designated as “harmony.” Therefore, one question for today could be construed as whether or not one’s acts of loving-kindness are performed in a way that denotes a harmonious balance to all concerned in the endeavor. Moreover, in our own personality makeup, where is the harmony within that can promote feelings of kindness to others? For, is it not so, that sincere kindness should ideally flow from a peaceful, harmonious place within our very selves?

Tiferes also represents balance; by contrast an imbalance in the personality could be rectified through tiferes. Are you able to envision your heartfelt acts of kindness bringing harmony to the lives of others? Or do you think of your kindnesses only as a small drop in the bucket? If so, consider that the ripple effect may be greater than you can imagine. Further reflect upon the realization that your answer as to how potent an act of kindness may be, reflects your own perspective on self-worth, and how efficacious you perceive your efforts to be for the sake of others.

Tiferes also has to do with “centeredness;” therefore, if one is not in harmony with him or herself, one may not feel inclined to show kindness towards others. Sometimes, moving past any hesitancy to give of ourselves to others, will help to transcend our egos, our personal limited selves, thereby surpassing any need in the moment to remain constricted. An act of kindness in and of itself may lift our hearts up in joy as the resultant feeling of performing that act. This can be understood in the adage, “change the behavior and the feelings will follow.”

Furthermore, consider the commandment to love G-d with all of our heart, soul, and might. Being commanded to love may seem like a conundrum, if we only perceive love as a natural felt feeling that we either have or do not have. However, the Hebrew word for love is “ahavah,” and has the connotation of giving. To give of ourselves to G-d, based upon the commandment of our responsibilities to do so, will increase our love towards Him over time.

The same is true in our relationships with others. To perform an act of kindness for a “loved one,” is to willingly accede to the requirement of “love,” that is to “be giving.” Although, unwillingness to give may precede an act of giving, the feelings may follow, whereas one will feel better for doing so. This may also be seen in the adage that “it is better to give than to receive,” because the giver actually does receive the positive feelings that result from giving.

note: These are my personal reflections on the implications of today’s combination of middot (character traits). These reflections are not meant to be comprehensive, inasmuch that they are not based upon any one particular system. Nor, may these ideas be characterized as authoritative, because I profess to being a student, not a teacher. I hope to inspire others to delve into an exploration of their personality, for the sake of tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul).

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).

Simchas Torah 5782

“At His right hand was a fiery law unto them.”

– Deuteronomy 33:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

On Simchas Torah, the entire portion of V’zot HaBeracha is read; this is the last parashas of the Torah. Afterwards, the first part of Bereishis, the first parashas of the Torah is read, in order to make the statement that we begin anew, immediately following an ending. This reminds of the saying, when one door closes, another door opens, meaning that when one endeavor is brought to its conclusion, another opportunity will prevail. The seasons of nature, as well as the seasons of our lives reflect this theme.

Within the framework of the parashas, B’nei Yisrael is poised to enter Eretz Canaan; Moshe is intent on imparting a berachah (blessing) to them. This blessing parallels the blessing that Jacob gave to his twelve sons; inasmuch that Moshe has been the king and prophet over B’nei Yisrael, he is giving a blessing to the twelve tribes.

Moshe begins, “The L-RD came from Sinai,” therefore, emphasizing H’Shem’s presence, of Whom “at His right hand was a fiery law unto them” (Deuteronomy 33:2, JPS). “The voice of the L-RD heweth out flames of fire” (Psalm 29:7, JPS). H’Shem’s voice appeared as fire that engraved the commandments into the two stone tablets. On Simchat Torah, may we rejoice in acknowledgment of H’Shem’s promise through the prophet, to engrave these words on our heart in due time:

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the L-RD, I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their G-d, and they shall be My people.”

– Jeremiah 31:33, JPS 1917 Tanach

Sukkot 5782 – Shabbat Chol HaMoed

Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

“The L-RD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.” – Exodus 13:21, JPS 1917 Tanach

When B’nei Yisrael was seemingly ensconced at the Sea of Reeds, as the Egyptian army approached, “the angel of G-d, who went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud removed from before them, and stood behind them; and it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel” (Exodus 14:19-20, JPS). Thus protection was assured to B’nei Yisrael, sheltered by the Cloud, and illuminated by the Pillar of Fire (synonymous with the angel of G-d); yet, the Egyptians remained in darkness.

After crossing through the Sea of Reeds, the Cloud of Glory continued to shelter B’nei Yisrael in the journeys through the wilderness, and the pillar of fire continued to provide illumination at night. During Sukkot, we remind ourselves of the existential nature of these journeys, by dwelling in temporary structures known as sukkoth, similar to the makeshift tents that provided shelter from the physical elements for B’nei Yisrael in the wilderness. Yet, on another level, these structures are meant to remind us of the Clouds of Glory that sheltered the Children of Israel.

In reviewing the parashas, I was struck by the use of a word, very similar to the Hebrew word, sukkah. Both words share two common letters in their shoresh (root word), the letters shin and kof. The word sukkah, basically means, tent or booth, as per the temporary structures built in the wilderness journeys. The word sakoti means cover or covering, and is found in the following verse: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover [sakoti] thee with My hand until I have passed by” (Exodus 33:22, JPS). So, perhaps this is at least one connection found to Sukkot in this parashas chosen as the reading.

What might this similarity imply? In the context of the pasuk (verse), H’Shem’s hand, figuratively speaking, shields Moshe from His brilliance, thereby protecting him from the overwhelming glory of H’Shem.* One might say that H’Shem’s hand serves as a temporary sukkah, encompassing Moshe, while He passes by; yet, surely, some of the brightness of H’Shem is still visible to Moses, since a hand would not serve to totally encapsulate and block the light. This is comparable to the skach, the roof of a sukkah that leaves visibility of the stars and sky above.

Moshe received a fuller revelation of H’Shem at that time; he also heard the thirteen attributes of mercy proclaimed as “H’Shem passed by before him” (34:6, JPS). These are the same attributes of mercy that are recited in the prayers for the holidays. We seek H’Shem’s mercy, not only in anticipation of forgiveness, leading up to Yom Kippur; additionally, according to the Zohar, we may still seek His mercy through repentance, prayer, and charity until the the gates are completely closed for the year’s decrees on Hoshannah Rabbah – the seventh day of Sukkot.

*According to Ibn Ezra, some commentators translate kappi (hand) as clouds. Thus the rendering is that the cloud covered Moses, in like manner as the Cloud of Glory, symbolized by a sukkah.

A Very Present G-d

The Decalogue Revisited: (Deuteronomy 5:1 – 26)

“The covenant made between G’d and the people at the time did not only include the generation which was an eye-witness to the revelation but that it included all the subsequent generations of Jews throughout the ages.” – R’ Bachya, on Deuteronomy 5:1, sefaria.org

“Future generations who were not present at the time this covenant was made will consider it binding for themselves and conduct themselves accordingly.”

– Sforno, on Deuteronomy 5:3, sefaria.org

פָּנִ֣ים ׀ בְּפָנִ֗ים דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֧ה עִמָּכֶ֛ם בָּהָ֖ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃

“Face to face the L-RD spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire.”

– Deuteronomy 5:4, JPS 1985 Tanach, sefaria.org

According to Sforno, the words פנים בפנים that are translated above as “face to face,” may be rendered, ”I have spoken to you revealing many different facets of Myself” (Sforno, on Deuteronomy 5:4, sefaria.org). Thus, perhaps, we may infer that this may be understood as a prooftext for the midrash (textual interpretation), concerning how it is “as if” the L-RD appeared at Sinai to the Children of Israel, like a many-faceted diamond, figuratively speaking, like a “vision within a vision” (R’ Bachya, on Exodus 33:11, sefaria.org).

The teaching inferred from this metaphor, for, indeed, there is no image that can be made of G-d, is that the Words of the L-RD that day were heard by the ears of the multitude of Israel at Sinai, according to the capacity of each individual to receive what was being said. Thus, we have a model, for the manner that we are able to receive the words of scripture today, as if each individual may receive what needs to be learned for the edification of the soul; consequently, this is like receiving a personalized message from G-d.

Moving On

parashas Beha’alotecha 5781

“In the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of the testimony.”

  • Numbers, 10:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

B’nei Yisrael had been encamped at the base of Mount Sinai for ten days under a year. When the Cloud lifted up from above the encampment, that was the signal to journey to the next location. “And the cloud of the L-RD was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp” (Numbers 10:34, JPS 1917 Tanach). Thus, did the Children of Israel move out in the formation that was previously established for them.


First the tribe of Judah, then, as they began to march, the tabernacle would be disassembled, and placed in the care of the three Levite families. Two of the families followed the tribe of Judah; the third Levite family followed the tribe of Reuben. The rest of the tribes followed in formation behind them. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” (Numbers 9:17, JPS). By day also He led them by a cloud, and all the night with a light of fire (Psalm 78:14).

Let us consider how G-d’s Presence guided the B’nei Yisrael, during the wandering in the desert. “Thou goest before them, in a pillar of cloud by day, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14, JPS). This points toward H’Shem’s role in our lives to guide us in the right direction, to be a compass in an uncertain world, and a light in the darkness, as well as a refuge from the tumults of life. Appropos of the times, the day speaks of the necessity to turn towards the Creator, whose words are better than silver and gold (Psalms 19:1-5, Proverbs 8:19).

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