Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

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

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

Yom Kippur 5770- as the time approaches

So, its erev Yom Kippur, I’ve come back from Mikveh and I’m sweating over the drosha’s I will have to give, all three of them!  so, while organising my thoughts I will put at leats one of those droshas down here.

In sefer Darchei Mussar Rabbi Neeman brings the following idea” al cheit shechatanu lefenechah – for the sins we sinned before you.  Where does he place the emphasis?  For the sins we sinned before YOU.  The first step to being able to repent is a realisation that we are standing before G-d.  If we do not have this realisation, if we cannot understand the import of needing to put ourselves before G-d, that everything is found before G-d, then we are guilty of one sin- fleeing from G-d.  He compares this to a soldier- he gets minor punihsments for small things- for untied shoes, for his uniform being messy, for not marching properly.  However, if he flees from the army he recieves a major punishment- if it is in battle, there are many time sin history when desertion in the face of the enemy was punihsable by death! 

Similarly for us;  if we realise we stand before G-d, that we are in his presence, their is space for us to be forgiven for our sins, we can get all the inor punishments many of which will be overlooked since, just as the hero of a battle will often be excused for minor infractions- so G-d can forgive us when we lose minor skirishes with the yetzer hara if we make sure that over all we are winning the battle.  However, if we flee from the presence of G-d, if we cannot understand and acknowledge that he is the king of kings and that we stand before him, then like the soldier going awol or deserting, we will receive a major punishment – an dall the minor infractions we have will be added on top of that.

This idea raises the centrality of what Teshuvah is about.  Primarily, teshuvah is about taking responsibility- realising that we have damaged the relationship between ourselves and G-d through our actions and thus have to repair that relationship.  Part of the taking of responsibility is realising that we are not beholden only to ourselves, but that we have a master, G-d, the King of kings, who has a right to demand certain behaviour from us.  Just as the solider has his masters in the army that can dictate how he dresses, how he sleeps, where he sleeps, what he eats etc- so is G-d our master who has the right to tell us how to behave.  Thus, we have to take the responsibility to recognise that his rules are just, that hjis ways are jsut, and that his judgements are just- and that if we have failed to live up to them, he has the right to enact the consequences of those actions on us!

However, as it is brought in Midrash Bereshis Rabbah, the world wasfirst to be  created with the strict divine attribute of Malkhut, justice.  However, G-d realised that the world could not survive if the attirbute of Malkhut was strictly applied, and thus the attribute of Rachamim, mercy, was applied to the creation of the world.  It is for this reason we rejoice when it comes to Yom Kippur- for though it is solemn and we are having our fates sealed, we have are being judged in this world with the attribute of Rachami.  We have an oppotunity to do Teshuvah, and to be forgiven with ease since rachamim rules over the strictness of malkhut in this world.  However, when we die and our neshamah stands before the Kisei HaKavod and is judged for all those things we did not do teshuvah shleimah for in this world- the strict attribute of Malkhut is used!  Thus, Yom Kippur is a day showing the love of Hashem, a day in which hashen gives us an opportunity to repent in this world and to achieve teshuvah without strict justice being applied!


A g’mar chatimah tovah l’kol


Note:  As always, comments, discussions and corrections are welcomed.

September 27, 2009 Posted by | Chagim, Other Torah, Torah | , , , | 1 Comment