Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Yom Kippur 5771- Understand where things come from

There is an interesting drosha in the book “Darchei Mussar” by R’ Nieman- he makes the point that one should not have pride because they are wealthy, because they are wise, because they are mighty etc. After all- these are all subjective measures- the rich of one town may be poor in another; the judges and scholars of one era less knowledgeable than those of other eras; the mighty warriors defeated by others whose might is greater than theirs. More than this, does not the knowledge of Hashem make the knowledge of mankind seem non-existent? Is G-d not the ruler of the whole world and thus possessed of incalculable wealth? Is not G-d called a man of war in the Torah, mightier than entire armies? In the end, the achievements of man seem to be meaningless- and thus the famous dictum of King Solomon : Everything is merely vanity and ultimately worthless.

However, this is a nihilistic approach if not understood properly. Judaism does not see our actions as meaningless, but as being exceptionally valuable and have enduring and lasting value. This is where we see the difference- it is not in what we achieve that there is value, but in the action and the intent behind doing it! R’ Nieman uses the example of two people- both of whom study a daf of Gemmorah, of day, both have the same knowledge at the end of studying the daf, both the same understanding- the difference is that for one it requires but an hour, the other requires the entire day. R’ Nieman points out that since it is the intention and the action that is important, not what is ultimately achieved, the one who takes his entire day out to study the daf, who has to work harder to understand it, would ultimately receive a greater reward for his greater effort! Does this mean that the other person can never achieve that level reward? Of course not- but perhaps for him it would entail having to study two or three dafs- maybe for him he needs to study more mussar or halacha. Perhaps he can enhance his study fo the daf by studying more meforshim or following the development of the hallachah to the hallachah l’ma’aseh. Each of us has those things that are easy for us to achieve, and there is nothing wrong in working to our strengths- but then we must not use that as an excuse to step back and devote our energies elsewhere!

More than the above, there is another important factor as to why we should not have too much pride in what we achieve. On Rosh Hashanah we all stood and recited u’netaneh tokef, as we will again on Yom Kippur. There we state that G-d will decide on our fates, who will become wealthy, who poor, who will increase, who will decrease, who will be healthy, who will be sick and so on. In unetaneh tokef we have a direct statement that what we achieve in this world is dictated by G-d. If G-d decrees wealth for us, we will receive wealth- if not, we will not. What is important, what we are judged on then, is not what we achieve- but what we do. Not what the ultimate realisation of our efforts is- but what are efforts are! The ultimate realisation of the Yamim Noraim is that G-d is the king of kings, the ultimate ruler and that events in the world transpire according to his design. What we will achieve is dependent on what he has decided- it is in his hands what we will receive- what is in our hands is our actions, what effort we put into things, what our intentions are and where our hearts lead us.

In a few days time we will stand in shul on Yom Kippur- we will pray to Hashem to seal us for a year of goodness, to inscribe us for life, not just in this world, but in the world to come. While we do this, let us keep in mind that Hashem is the king of kings, the ultimate ruler who will dictate this- but that for us to merit his greatest blessings, we have to show our willingness to submit to his rule through our actions and our intentions. Then, just as an ordinary king will reward those courtiers who are loyal and work in his best interests, so too will we merit to be sealed for a good year, to be sealed intot he book of life in this world and the world to com.

GMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH to all of you, your families, your communities and to all klal Yisrael

September 16, 2010 Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | , , , , | 4 Comments

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

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