Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Rosh Chodesh Elul 5770

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, tomorrow is the first day of Elul. As always, we enter into the month of Elul with trepidation. Unlike Tishrei, it does not have any great days- all those are next month, starting with Rosh Hashanah, followed by first Yom Kippur and then Sukkot. Yet it is now, as the moth before them begins, that we do the most introspection, now that we start preparing to stand before Hashem, the Dayan Emet, the true judge, from whom nothing is hidden and who will make a true, just and complete accounting of our past year when he passes judgement on us. So, as Elul dawns, we start the month with trepidation, as we start taking a truly honest look at ourselves as we begin to account for our actions.

In the morning, during shacharit, the sound of the shofar is a plaintive cry, a sound to awaken our souls to repentance. But should we be in despair? Should we be standing there, fearing, weeping, scared because we know we have not been perfect? Are we doomed because we have failed to perform every mitzvah precisely? Do we need to view ourselves as beyond help, beyond redemption? Of course not! In fact, we are forbidden from viewing ourselves as sinners- and no man is ever beyond the power of Teshuvah!

Rav Dessler in Micthtav me’Eliyahu has an interesting essay on Midat HaRachamim (I am still being reading this drosha, so I may update this when i have completed studying this particular drosha). At the start of this essay he makes the point that it seems contradictory that G-d can be true judge, yet judge us with mercy! Surely the dictates of being a true judge would compel him to judge strictly according to the law without the benefit of mercy? And if that is the case, why do we bother with the mentioning of Avraham, Ya’akov and Yitzchak in our prayers and hoping that in their merit, G-d will show us mercy? If G-d, the true judge, is bound to judge us only strictly and by the letter of the law, then how can he find mercy for us merely because he shows us mercy because of the actions of the Avot?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that whenever we do something there are always multiple motives. Yes, we might have done something wrong, our primary motivation being wrong- but what of our secondary motivations? What of those hesitations, that second guessing of ourselves, the misgivings we have even as we undertake an action? Yes- the action was wrong, but is it always that harsh? In secular courts they will look for extenuating circumstances, look for reasons why an action, while wrong, can be forgiven to a certain extent.

Now if we, mere humans who can only emulate the great midot of Hashem can judge with mercy, can look beyond the harsh facts, surely G-d, whose capacity for mercy, whose capacity for love and understanding exceeds anything human,can do so as well? The avot trusted in G-d completely, judging every statement of his in the best possible light. Imagine if Avraham had evaluated and judged the statements of G-d the way we do the statements of our fellow man. Imaging if, when G-d told him to leave his country, his home, his family and go to an undetermined location if he had judged it harshly? Imagine if Yitzchak, when being told by his father that G-d would provide the sacrifice had stood there, evaluated and judged the words harshly- and decided that, strictly speaking, he didn’t like the idea of being a sacrifice? Imagine if Ya’akov, who went through so many hardships had decided to throw in the towel, had turned back and settled with Lavan so as not to face the power and vengeance of Esav? Each of the avot was tested, each had to make a decision whether to judge G-d’s word on faith and hope, or strictly and by man made standards. They chose to judge faith and hope and thus created a nation worthy to receive the Torah- if they had judged as men, subjected the promises and hardships they underwent to the harsh judgement of cold logic, the Jewish nation would never have been born! It is a common phrase and belief in Judaism that hashem judges “measure for measure”- and thus why we feel confident that if we mention the Avot G-d will judge us lightly just as he judged them lightly.

Thus, as we start looking at ourselves tomorrow, as we start our period of introspection, correcting ourselves and our actions, seeking out those flaws we need to fix, seeking out the deeds we need to atone for, the people we need to approach for forgiveness- we should not see ourselves as sinners. We should not see ourselves as being evil and beyond redemption. Rather, we should judge ourselves as hashem judges us, as the avot judged the words of Hashem. we should look at our deeds to se ehow they can be improved so they can pull us forward, lead us into a closer relationship with G-d. We should find how we can negative the negatives into positives, judge ourselves with mercy and understanding, and find hope that we can improve ourselves and merit a judgement for a good and sweet year!

August 10, 2010 Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Parshas Korach 5770

Question
In this weeks parsha the entire nation is atoned for. What did they do, and what does the method used for?
atonement illustrate?

This weeks parsha is Korach: Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 16:1-18:32

AnswerThe people were punished because they accussed Moshe of being responsible for the deaths of the 250 people with him. Ramban points out that there are 2 reasons for this accusation:
1) Previously, whem the people had sinned Moshe had prayed and they had been spared. This time he did not pray.
2) Nadav and Abihu had been killed for offering the incense sacrifice- they stated that Moshe had known offering this particular sacrifice would result in the deaths of everyone but Ahaaron, as for Aharon it would be the morning sacrifice he was meant to bring, and for everyone else it would be a “strange fire” resulting in their deaths!

How does Ramban resolve these accusations against Moshe? In the first instance, he states that previously, particularly at the incident of the golden calf, he had the excuse that the people could have claimed not to have heard, or not to have understood, the commandment to worship G-d alon and undertake to follow the Torah.

However, their complaint now was that the entire nation was just as holy as they had all heard G-d proclaim the first two commandments! With that statement, Moshe could not ask G-d to forgive them, as they admitted that they knew they were guilty of idol worship previously, and that in denying Moshe and stating that he was taking power for himself and his family contrary to the wishes of G-d, they were denying the Torah he had brought down from har Sinai. As such, Moshe could not pray for them as they had removed themselves from his authority and ability to atone for them!

On accusation two, Ramban points out that the incense offering was considered especially dear to G-d. It is an offering whos esole purpose is to draw us closer to G-d, to declare our loving relationship with G-d. It was why Nadav and Abihu had chosen to offer it when they erred! Here, Moshe was hoping that the people involved would repent, would investigate their relationship with G-d, would remember the fate of Nadav and Abihu and repent.

Because of their inappropriate attack on Moshe, the people were punished with the plague breaking out amongst them. The atonement was appropriate to the cause- Aharon used an incense offering to re-establish the relationship between the nation and G-d. The choice of atonement was appropriate to the method of repenting the sin- it was because people pulled away from g-d and Moshe that they were punished- thus they were atoned for by re-establishing that relationship.

This teaches a general lesson when we need to repent for an action: Apologising and repairing the relationship, be it between us and G-d or us and our fellow man, is mor eimportant than the physical symbolism attached. Atonement is not through sacrifices, blood or outward symbolism- it is in the internal process and realisations, the correction of the basic problem, that we are forgiven and atoned for. G-d does not need blood or sacrifices- G-d needs us to improve ourselves!

June 13, 2010 Posted by | Torah | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chanukkah and Teshuvah

When speaking about Channukah, people seldom talk about it and its relationship to Teshuvah (repentance) and Kiruv (outreach to bring Jews back to Judaism).  To me, these seem to be central themes.  Think about it his way:  Why do the Jews revolt? Over taxes?  Over land appropriation?  How about over not having self-rule and living in an “occupied territory”?  No- these matters all are insufficient to drive them to rebel and risk their lives.  The Greeks were a vastly superior power- their army was massive, they ruled a huge empire at the time and were THE world power!  What does drive the Jews to finally rebel?  The order to place an idol in the Temple and sacrifice a pig to it.

In itself, this would be bad- but we also know that many Jews had been attracted to the Greek philosophy and its grounding in this world.  It was attractive, logical, and easily studied- it provided concrete benefits in the here and now in that you then fitted into the ruling culture, became one of them and could move freely and enjoy a better lifestyle.  The Chanukkah story is not just about the miltiary victory, but about a spiritual one as well.  An interesting thing to note is that when we say the insert of Al Hanissim in Birkat HaMazon, the miracle of the oil is not mentioned, but it mentions the great military victory.  What does this teach?  That we won the war because Hashem created a miracle for us; the miracle of the oil was to emphasise that and to make sure it would be understood as such and not to see it as a purely physical victory.

But how does this relate to Tesahuvah and Kiruv?  The oil gives us the clue to this:  a small vial of pure oil is found.  This relates to the fact that a small amount of pure Jews remained while the majority had become Hellenised.  It also has a deeper message- it relates to the holy spark, the soul that is always there no matter how deeply buried it is beneath the trapings of having taken on another religion or committing great misdeeds.  With the correct behaviour, that spark can burn far more than its size would indicate.  It can transcend the physical and become something much greater that elevates us into the realm of the holy.  Mystically, the number 7 is seen as representing completeness in this world, a melding of the spiritual and the physical.  The Shabbos completeing the creation and making it whole- but the number 8 is seen as transcending that, bringing this world beyond the mundane, into the wholly spiritual.  Thus the eight candles of the Channukiah are a symbol of this. 

What is that small vial of oil teaching us?  That no matter how far we have fallen, how deeply we have buried our inherent holiness, we can always recover.  We can always repent and then that small element of holiness, that small vial of oil, brings us closer to Hashem- and once we approach Hashem, he takes over, he sustains us and we can reach beyond the limits we perceive to truly elevate ourselves spiritually.

Where do we see a message of Kiruv? The Hasmoneans fought against the Greeks and the Hellenised Jews- but afterwards they reached out, brought those estranged Jews back intot the fold, brought them back into the mainstream of Bnei Yisrael. Some remained Hellenised and lost to Judaism, but the majority of them returned to Judaism. It is seen in another way- we light the Chanukkah candles because of the dictum of the sages that we must publicise the miracle; this, too is a reaching out to the estranged and saying, “Come back, return, realise what it is that Hashem does for his people.” As I have frequently quoted from Pirkei Avot “Kol Yisrael arazim zeh lah zeh, v’yesh l’kol Yisrael chelek b’olam haba” “All of Isreal is responsible one for another, and for all of Israel there is a place in the world to come.” So this Chanukkah, lets watch these candles burning with a guest, with someone who would not light candles for themselves- and hope that this simple action will ignote the pach shemen (small vial of oil) within to a great flame of Teshuvah.

December 15, 2009 Posted by | Chagim, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment