Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Rosh Hashanah 5775: Shmittah Year!

As we go into Rosh Hashanah this year we need to be aware that this year is shmittah year. What is the shmittah year? In the Torah the it was commanded that the land would be worked for 6 years and in the 7th year it must be left alone, hefker, ownerless! Anyone was allowed to come and pick from what gre whtere. The owner could not cultivate it or fence it off to prevent others from entering. What grew in the field that year was there for anyone to come and take.

Think about what a massive act of faith this entailed! A farmer has to accept that when he grew in year 6 must sustain him and his family not only in year 6, but also in year 7 and also in year 1 of the next cycle until new food was grown! If there was insufficient the farmer would have to buy from non-Jews or from those outside of the area in which the law applied (the land given to the Jews when leaving Israel) or ask others to sustain him and his family until he had his own food. For us in the modern era we do not really appreciate the sacrifice involved. Modern farmers have fertilisers, machines and the yield of their farms is far in excess of their needs. In the times of the Temple the majority of farmers were subsistence farmers, their land small and yields barely large enough to sustain them over the period.

For many years these laws were like the other agricultural laws and laws relating to the Temple- held in abeyance until a majority of Jews dwelled in Israel (the laws for sacrifices and the Temple needing the additional condition that the Temple needs to be rebuilt.) Now, we have reached thathret shold and the lenient rulings of past years that allowed us to not have to observe this and other agricultural laws are a subject of debate: are they back in force or can we rely on the heterim of previous generations?

To the great merit of some farmers in Israel, they have chosen to let their fields lie fallow and to observe this incredible mitzvah! They put themselves and their livelihoods at risk in order to observe this mitzvah! Organisations have grown up to help sustain them over this period, but how great it is that once again we are seeing the laws of shmittah being observed in Israel!

We need to look at ourselves, examine ourselves as we prepare to go into Rosh Hashanah and ask ourselves if we are able to show the same leap of faith that G-d will sustain us! Its easy for us to say it, easy for us to think we would, but how many of us would really take that step and put our businesses and livelihoods on hold for a year because the Torah commands us?

We can take this a step further and look at it in a more esoteric way: Many people know the oft cited teaching that the seve days of creation are a remez (hint) to the world to come, the six days referring to the creation of the world, Shabbat to the world to come. The SHLAH (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz) in his book Shnei Luchot HaBris (Toldos Adam) teaches that on the first six days the Torah states “It was evening it was morning, day X”, not so for Shabbos- it just refers to the Seventh day and Shabbos- Shabbos is a complete unit, something complete, not in parts, not referred to except as a single unit. He applies the same idea to the years- comparing the six years to the six days of creation and thus to this world, with the shmittah year being about the world to come, about connecting to G-d, putting work aside and relying on G-d to sustain us. The farmers in Israel today choosing to rely on G-d, choosing to follow the Torah commandments show this commitment and elevate us all by this!

I challenge everyogn to think on this as they prepare for Rosh Hashnah, as they consider their deeds and actions of the last year. Where do you stand? With the farmers who put aside the year and trust in G-d to provide a parnassah or with those who choose to rather rely on their machines and fertilsers, those who stick by sound business principles and ignore the spiritual call of the shmittah?

September 23, 2014 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yom Kippur 5772

Yom Kippur is a time when we stand here in shul asking for forgiveness. We come, we stand face to face with G-d, and we beg him to grant us a good year, to seal us for good thing. But sometimes we feel that we do not know how to communicate with G-d, how do we convey to him out inner hearts and feelings, our true repentance. D we have to look into the Machzor, understand every nuance and thereby convey our wishes? What if we cannot? What if we do not have the time or the ability for such an examination? Do we need to study the Talmud, peruse Mishneh Torah and Hilchos teshuvah to find the formulae that MUST be used?

The above might be fantastic, for those who can it might be seen as the only way, but for many of us, that is not the case. What do we do, throw our hands up in despair and give up?

There is a famous Chasidishe story of an uneducated shepherd boy who spent his days looking after the sheep and rarely coming down into the city. One day he decided to come down and found the city deserted. Perplexed, he wandered through the town until he come to the synagogue. It was late on Yom Kippur, the sun going down, and the entire community sat there as the Rabbi prayed his Neilah Amidah. He finished it, then started again, ad then again a third time! The community was perplexed, but all were united, together, praying for forgiveness, looking to hashem to seal them for a good year. Into the shul at this time wandered the shepherd boy. He could not understand what was being said, all he could was to stare In awe at the packed synagogue, the men standing I their taleisim. He could feel the intense atmosphere, the yearning, the way the people were united. He longed to be part of it, yet he could not read a machzor, he could not understand the Hebrew, he felt cut off and alone. Then, moved by what he was experiencing, he stuck is fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, the one he used to call out across the mountains. Horror struck, the community turned to him, unable to believe that someone would desecrate the shul in such a way, to whistle while their rabbi prayed and sought a way for them to all achieve atonement. As they would have reached out, to expel him, the Rabbi spoke “Stop! Do you not realize what this boy has done? I have stood here praying that G-d would open the gates of mercy to us, but I could feel them shut. I cried and pleaded at the gates, but still they remained shut. When that whistle went out, when that pure and open whistle went out, the gates opened. Because of this boy’s whistle, the gates of mercy were opened for the entire community.
The story illustrates a few extremely important principles. The first relates to the answer of the question above: How do I communicate with G-d? Does it have to be through a means I do nto understand? The answer to that is “No, we should always strive to communicate and join with G-d in a manner meaningful to us.” Of course we should do it in a manner that is respectful and does not disrupt others, but how we communicate with G-d is not just an academic exercise of ticking off the prayers said in the Machzor, but a personal experience that should talk to us and bring us closer to G-d.

Another message is the importance of the community. The boy did not feel inspired until he was immersed within the community, until he saw the community. A community elevates us all, provides a means for all of us to achieve atonement, even when we are not deserving. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero makes the point in the book “Tomer Devorah” that there are sins which as individuals we cannot be forgiven for. Not because G-d is unable to forgive us, but because as human beings we tend to have a stubborn streak and we tend to find ways to justify bad behavior even though we are aware it is wrong. So how do we repent such sins? We, on our own initiative, are too stubborn to do teshuvah for these sins, so how do we overcome this barrier? One way is through a community. When we pray with a community, we achieve a level of forgiveness that we cannot achieve on our own. As part of a community, G-d forgives us completely, for every sin regardless of whether we have repented it, regardless of if we are even aware if it. This is brought as another aspect of the thirteen principles of mercy by Rabbi Cordovero in Tomer Devorah, that G-d forgives even when it is not deserved. This is especially true of a person who is part of a community, who has made himself part of something larger. We can be forgiven, and in a far more complete manner than otherwise, just because we are joined with the community.

And everyone has the right to be part of the community. Everyone, regardless of their personal standing, knowledge, merits and ability is part of the community. Before Kol Nidre we make the statement “With the permission of the Heavenly court, and the permission of the earthbound court, we declare it lawful to pray with the sinners”, the incense used in the temple contained the spice Galbonim, whose fragrance was unpleasant- in order to illustrate this same understanding. Similarly, the lulav is made up of four species, including one with no fragrance or taste, one with fragrance and no taste, one with taste and no fragrance and one with fragrance and taste- these represent all people, some with good deeds, some with knowledge, some with neither- but all are part of the community. And just as all are part of the community, all can communicate with G-d.

Judaism does not encourage us to be individuals at the expense of the community. There is a saying “You cannot be frum at someone elses expense.” In other words, you do not get to say that because you want to do some mitzvah, you will do it regardless of the consequences to others. In Judaism our family, our community, the Jewish people as a whole are a single unit. Judaism does not call for us to be monks, cutting ourselves off from the world and the community in order to be holy- on the contrary, we are expected to immerse ourselves in the community, in the place we are. In Parshas Nitzavim Moshe makes the famous statement that the Torah is not in the heavens and unreachable, nor is it over the seas and distance from us, but right here, right where we are. Close to us, close to the entire community.

Certain prayers can only be said in a minyan, thus showing that for these prayers we have to have a community! A Torah scholar who refuses to teach the Talmud teaches us in masechta Sanhedrin that such a person is cursed- as he is effectively denying other members of the community access to their inheritance, the Torah. In the times of the Temple, three times a year the entire nation was expected to come to Jerusalem as a community, to congregate, to be as one. Thus when we act as one, when we are a community, we elevate ourselves, we elevate the entire nation to a new level of holiness, and thus G-d sees, acknowledges and forgives. When all of Israel is as one, when we support each other as one, G-d treats us as one and thus the burden of doing Teshuvah is shifted and made lighter, for a load carried by many is lighter than a load carried by one.

As we enter Yom Kippur, let this be our focus, to try and feel that connection, to a community, to G-d. Let us find what is meaningful to us which allows us to create that connection and thus join with a greater whole and achieve that Teshuvah Shelemah, complete repentance, that we all desire.

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , | Leave a comment

Pesach 5770- Four new Pesach questions

As we approach Pesach, we all go into frenzies of cleaning up. We clear our houses, erase any trace of chametz at work, in our cars or in any place we commonly eat or store anything. Physically we spend a lot of time cleaning up- but how much time do we spend on the spiritual spring cleaning?

Our sages liken chametz to representing pride, of self importance “inflating” ourselves to appear greater to others. “Geivah” is a negative charater trait we need to clean up and eradicate from our lives, and the eradication of chamtz from our lives is symbolic of this. So it seems strange that Pesach is the time that we are commanded to rid ourselves of chametz. Why do I say it is strange? At the time, we could hardly have been feeling too self important or prideful; we were slaves, escaping from bondage; slaves that for 210 years had been oppressed, had their children killed, forced to work to build cities even while still needing to do work to cater for our own needs.

However, maybe the picture is not quite complete; not all Jews were slaves. The tribe of Levi continued to study Torah and at no time did they go work as slaves, though they were caught up in the genocidal decrees of Pharoah. There also appears to hae been a large group of Bnei Yisrael that assimilated into Egyptian culture, a group larger than the core that stuck to the beliefs of their fathers. A midrash stats that during the plague of darkness many of these asismilated Jews died, their deaths being hidden from the Eyptians in the darkness in order not to lessen the effect of the plague on them. These assimalted Jews were the ones that did not make the Korban Pesach, that would have seen their firstborn children die; and the midrash states that these Jews, 4/5ths of the jewish nation, never left Egypt- rather their assimilation took the ultimate course and they dissapeared from the world in time.

What was the mistake of these people? What led them to this putting of physical comfort and identification with a hostile group over their own people? Here we see the relevance of the symbology of chametz to Pesach. These were the peopel that had built themselves up, whose self image and self importance made them elevate that above spirituality and an identification with their own people. These were the “Richard Goldstones” of the ancient world, people more concerned with their acceptance and appearance to the non-Jewish world than wanting to be a member of their community. These were the “messianic Jews” of the ancient world- more concerned with trying to adapt their ways to fit into an outside culture rather than maintaining the integrity of their own- and like the “messianic jews” of toady, these members of Bnei Yisrael sanctified themselves accoding to the rites and rituals of the surrounding culture, ignoring what Jews actually believe and were oing. If they had been watching their brothers, if they had identified with Bnei Yisrael and not the outside culture- they, too, would have had a lamb to sacrifice and its blood to smear on the doorposts.

This year, let the spiritual cleaning of Pesach include four new Pesach questions:
Who do I identify with, my fellow Jews or the outside world?
Who do I stand with, my own people or those who seek to bring Jews down?
Where do my loyalties lie- with the Torah or with acceptance by a modern culture increasingly hostile towards displays of religion?
What stand will I take- to keep Judaism Jewish- ot to let it be diluted and fade into the mists of time like all the other religions which felt they had to change wih times and adopt the ways of the outside world?

March 24, 2010 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , | 1 Comment