131019 – Parshat VaYera

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Yerushalayim 01

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT VA’YERA

Bereishit (Genesis) 18:1-22:24

Haftorah – II Kings 40:1-37

131019

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This week we read about some incidents in the life of Avraham and Sarah. The Parsha begins with three messengers (angels, each with a specific task) who visited our patriarch Avraham after his painful circumcision. The three messengers were: Micha’el – who informed Avraham and Sarah that they would have a son; Gavri’el whose task was to destroy the provinces of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Refa’el – whose purpose was to heal Avraham after his circumcision (and to save his nephew Lot). Lot is an interesting character, full of contradictions, very much like us and is never included among all the great Jewish heroes and role models.

We talk about the loving-kindness of Avraham; we name our children after him. Yet, don’t we most resemble Lot? In the great travels of our Patriarch and his family, we find that when Avram came to Canaan from Haran, the Torah says: “And Avram took his wife Sarai, and Lot his brother’s son and all the wealth that he had amassed…­” (Bereishit 12:5). And, when Avram returned to Canaan from Egypt after the famine, the Torah says 13:1: “So Avram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that was his and Lot with him…” ­Prof. Nechama Leibowitz z”l (Zichrona LiVracha – may she be remembered for a blessing), teaches that in this second verse, Lot is mentioned after all the possessions. The wealth and materialism of Egypt had so affected Lot that he was a changed man. For Lot, possessions meant more than people.

When the family returns from Egypt, Lot, the materialistic nephew, chooses to live in Sodom, where the living is high and the morality low. Avraham comes to Canaan for a new life; Lot comes for profit. Avraham wants a better way of life, but Lot wants a better standard of living. Avraham wants a society based upon what would become Torah‘s values; but Sodom fulfills Lot’s purposes.

Last week’s Parsha described a war between four kings and five kings, during which Lot was taken captive and his possessions were confiscated. Avraham was obligated to rescue his kinsman and nephew Lot, which he did. Did Lot learn from his loss and his rescue? No. He went back to Sodom, and the evil people of Sodom once again affected him. As misguided as Lot appears to us, HaShem thought that Lot should be saved. HaShem sent a messenger (an angel) in the guise of a traveler to save Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. Lot trying to be virtuous offers his daughters to the Sodomites so that they would be distracted and not take away his guests.

Another episode in this Parsha deals with Avraham passing through the territory of AviMelech, king of Gerar. Once again, Avraham and Sarah find themselves in hostile territory. Avraham was aware of AviMelech’s strange practice. Like Pharaoh in Egypt, AviMelech, king of Gerar, sought beautiful women for himself. But, just as Pharaoh would never consider taking another man’s wife, AviMelech would have the husband murdered and then force his affections on the widow.

HaShem intervened and Sarah was saved from dishonor. But like Pharaoh, AviMelech is repulsed by Avraham’s cowardly behavior when he lied and pretended to be Sarah’s brother. “Therefore AviMelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants, and told all these things in their ears; and the men were very afraid: Then AviMelech called Avraham, and said to him, What have you done to us? And in what have I offended you that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done: And AviMelech said to Avraham, What did you see, that you have done this thing: And Avraham said, Because I thought, surely the fear of HaShem is not in this place; and they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Bereishit 20:8-12).

AviMelech, a civilized man (according to his standards) wanted to know how Avraham could have done such a thing to him. He was angry, HaShem had rebuked him and he lost honor among his people. Avraham replied: “Because I thought, surely the fear of HaShem is not in this place.” Neither Sodom nor Gerar were places that were conducive to the moral lifestyle that Avraham wanted for his family.

The wrong friends sometimes influence us; we choose neighborhoods, schools and choose our priorities as responses to the wrong signals. At times, we exploit our relationships with others, even though we might have great role models who teach us otherwise. Even if we don’t have someone like Avraham as a role-model, we still have many Torah leaders who are living role models in our time. Do we exemplify their lives, or do we choose the values of those living around us?

HaShem redeemed Lot because HaShem knew that with all his foibles, Lot was redeemable. Despite his mistakes and misdeeds, his pride and selfishness, he was basically a decent fellow. He lived in Sodom, he was becoming part of Sodom, but he wasn’t really happy about it. His redeeming grace was that he knew something was wrong. As warped a community as Sodom was, Avraham always remained an uncle and role-model for Lot.

We don’t have an uncle like Avraham, but we do have something even better – the Torah. It is a reminder to us every day of how we should behave and how we should react to outside influences.

We learn from Avraham pleading with HaShem to save Sodom (18: 20-33) that without a Minyan (a quorum of 10 a minimum group necessary to establish a Torah society), Lot could not survive the moral Galut (exile) of Sodom. But we, who have Shuls (synagogues), communities, and the ability to connect to holiness and to purity, sometimes like Lot, choose the wrong society. The Torah tells us that like Lot we too ARE worthy of redemption. But when we are told to leave Sodom and its ways, do we listen? We can read the message; but do we believe the words? We know the story; but do we react as we should react?

In Yeshiva high School I had a Rebbe asked: “If the Torah contains the laws of the Jewish people, then why are there so many stories?” He answered that often we learn more from the stories because they provide us with an example on how to live a life of Torah.

With G-d’s help, may we muster the strength to improve our lot, just like Lot did.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

130727 – Parshat Ekev

*********************

VORTIFY YOURSELF

SiddurReb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT EKEV

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-11:25

Haftarah – Isaiah 49:14-51:3

130727

*********************

We have been selected against our will to be players in the game of life. Right from the very beginning, the “conspiracy” began. The first humans, created in the idyllic Garden of Eden, were expelled because they exercised their powers of free choice improperly. Life after the Garden entailed making choices for right or for wrong.

In the ten generations from Adam to No’ach (Noah), mankind generally chose improperly and a new world was formed. After that time, all of mankind was required to live by a set of seven laws, the “Seven No’achide Mitzvot [Commandments]” that became and still is the basis for all human behaviour: 1. Belief in G-d, 2. Do not murder, 3. Do not steal, 4. Do not commit adultery, 5. Do not blaspheme, 6. Setup a court system, 7. You must kill mammals before eating them.

In the ten generations from No’ach to Avraham (Abraham) again, the world chose improperly. The former single world-wide nation became splintered into seventy different nations and languages and dispersed around the planet. Avraham and his future offspring were “chosen” to be the examples of how to choose correctly.

After receiving the Ten Utterances (Commandments), the Torah (with its 613 Mitzvot) and after spending 40 years in the desert absorbing the Torah and its many regulations and lessons, the Children of Israel thought themselves ready. But prior to Moshe’s death, just as Am Yisra’el (the Nation of Israel) was about to enter Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel), he gave four discourses of admonition to his flock, so that they might learn from mankind’s history and from their own, how to LIVE successfully in Eretz Yisra’el. And it is here, in his second discourse that Moshe makes known the essence of the Torah.

In chapter 10 verses 12 – 13, Moshe rephrases the nature of the Torah into just a few words: “And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere HaShem your G-d, to go in His ways, and to love Him and to serve HaShem your G-d with all your heart and soul. To guard the commandments of HaShem and His statutes, which I enjoin upon you today, for your own good.”

Two very important teachings are learnt from these verses. RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) cites the famous ChaZaL (Rabbinical teaching) from the Talmud (Berachot 33) based on these verses: “All is in the hands of Heaven – except the reverence of Heaven.”

Mankind can only serve HaShem properly if it has reverence for Him. No matter what situation one faces one must first have a sense of reverence for HaShem in order to be able to choose correctly. Without it, one may be swayed either by the temptation of the action or by the fear of punishment (which isn’t really free choice). Only a highly developed sense of reverence allows one to exercise true free will.

The second lesson, reciting 100 blessings per day, was incorporated into the Seven Mitzvot of the Rabbis (while the Rabbi’s enacted thousands of ordinances within the framework of Jewish Halachah [law], only seven had the same standing as G-d given commandments. They are:

  1. Lighting candles prior to Shabbat and holidays,
  2. Lighting candles each night of Chanukah,
  3. Reading the Scroll of Esther on Purim,
  4. Giving gifts of food and charity on Purim,
  5. The use of an ERUV [to carry on Shabbat, or to cook on a festival in preparation for Shabbat],
  6. Reciting Hallel on Holidays and New Moons,
  7. Reciting 100 blessings per day.

The Talmud (Tractate Menachot 43) records: “…every person (Jew) is obligated to recite 100 blessings per day, because it says [in the Torah] ‘And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you?’ “RaShI comments: “when the Torah wrote “Mah” (what – does HaShem…) read instead Me’ah (100).”

In other words, instead of reading: “And now Israel, what does HaShem your G-d demand of you?”  

One should read, “And now Israel, 100 does HaShem your G-d demand of you?”

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, 1847-1905, the second Gerer Rebbe and leader of Polish Jewry) commented on this Rabbinical Commandment: “Since everything that happens to mankind, stems from a blessing from HaShem, the more one is reverent [of HaShem] and fortified [by the performance of His Mitzvot], the more one can connect to His blessings” (The Crowns of the Torah, by A.I. Greenberg, page 72).

By making at least 100 blessings per day, we become aware of the many blessings that HaShem showers upon us. The more we are aware of how many blessings we receive, the more appreciative we become of all the good that comes our way.

A decade ago, my parents, Jacob and Helen Rosenzweig celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary. Gathered around the Shabbat table we ate, we sang, and we related stories of the many blessings that HaShem has provided us. My father (who also just turned 93 years of age) told the story of how he approached a wealthy man in our community and asked him to sponsor an upcoming Kiddush (a post prayer light reception during which we bless HaShem and sanctify the Shabbat or Holiday). The man pointed at others eating herring and asked my father why he didn’t ask any of those people to sponsor the Kiddush.

My father told him that HaShem created two types of Jews. To one group He gave check books, so they could write as many checks as they desired and none would ever bounce. To the other group, He provided as much herring as they desired. My father told this wealthy man that if he was unhappy with the check book, he could trade it in for some herring. Put in this light, the man happily agreed to provide for as many Kiddushim as were needed.

Also a decade back my wife Kathy (A”H) had a very difficult time before and after receiving Chemotherapy during this post Shabbat Nachamu week. In a car ride home, she said to me that she was so happy that it was she who was ill and not me or any of our children. It reminded us of the story of the grandfather of the present Belzer Rebbe, who was born with a “clubbed foot”. The child’s parents made an arrangement with the parents of a young girl that their children would be wed after the girl reached Bat Mitzvah. Never having met each other, they accepted their Mazal (fate) with the assurance that their parents were looking out for their best interests.

On the day of the wedding, as guests were beginning to arrive, the bride looked out her window and was shown her groom walking down the road. When she saw that he had a deformity, she refused to marry the young man. Her parents and the parents of the groom pleaded with her to no avail. The synagogue was filling quickly and still she refused to marry this cripple. When all seemed lost, the young man asked to speak to his BASHERT (fated one). He entered the room, and a few minutes later he left informing everyone that the musicians should begin playing the processional. The future Rebbe and his Rebbetzin lived for sixty years together.

At the Shiva (seven days of mourning) after her funeral, the Rebbe was asked by one of his Chassidim (disciples) what was said in the room sixty years before. Never having spoken of the incident, the Rebbe surprised everyone when he began to explain that he had told his bride that before either of them were born, a heavenly decree proclaimed that they would be married. It also proclaimed that SHE would be born with a clubbed foot. He made an arrangement in heaven that he would suffer the clubbed foot instead of her. He told her that she didn’t have to marry him, but, she would have to take her foot. When confronted with his sacrifice, she realized that what seemed like a curse was actually a blessing.

All of these stories illustrate how reverence for HaShem allows one to appreciate the many blessings that HaShem bestows. The wealthy man who felt perturbed by the fact that he was always being asked to provide for others, did so with joy when confronted with the reality of his blessings. Similarly, my wife surprised me with her statement of her joy in accepting her illness rather than HER illness afflicting one of her loved ones.

In order to see HaShem’s many blessings we must bless Him so that we can literally, “count our Blessings.” Every time we pray, or make a blessing before or after we eat food, or see a rainbow, or witness a beautiful landscape, we become conscious of the great gifts that He bestows upon us.

HaShem doesn’t need our blessings, we do. Those, whose attitude toward life is negative, are unaware of the many blessings that surround them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

Yom Kippur – 5773

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

YOM KIPPUR – 5773

120926

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Throughout my career as a congregational Rabbi and even in the Shul (synagogue) that I grew-up in, the contrast between attendance on a regular Shabbat service and a Yom Kippur service was astounding. Synagogues built so that the community could sit comfortably in its pews on the High Holidays remain almost vacant during the rest of the year, save for life-cycle events such as Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and funerals. Highly qualified rabbis and cantors place much effort preparing meaningful sermons and collecting stimulating liturgical songs just for the few hours and/or days that they might be heard. Yet, many who do this work are also aware that no matter how well one might perform on the High Holy Days, after Yom Kippur again, it’s empty pews and a handful of Jews.

Fortunately, this description is not the norm; there are actually vibrant, thriving synagogues that attract worshippers not only every Shabbat, but every day throughout the year. When I didn’t serve as a Rabbi I attended such synagogues and many of my family members belong to vibrant synagogues in other communities. Their synagogues are successful because the worshippers feel compelled to attend and properly take advantage of the various services and experiences offered. Still, for many Jews, for a million different reasons, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only times they set foot in a synagogue and is there nothing that a rabbi can say in a sermon that will change their attitude and bring them back for more? Maybe it’s an unfair question, for no matter how eloquent the words, how relevant the topic, how beautifully delivered the content, if one is not listening with an open heart, then the message cannot pierce the surface.

I must say that the onus is not simply on the synagogue clergy for a successful service, but it rests on all of us. Too often, when I hear people ask each other during the High Holy Day season, “How were the services?,” the answer is usually a critique of the sermons and the cantor’s chanting of the liturgy. But the question should be less about how others performed and more about how did we all do. Did we feel a connectedness to God as we prayed? Did the words of the liturgy bring us a higher awareness of our inner selves? Did the power of group prayer, intensify the experience?

Prayer is at the core of Judaism, the bridge between the human heart and heaven, where the two meet. And yet, too many of us think of spirituality as the domain of Chassidim or Christian Evangelicals. We are uncomfortable with how we should actually approach prayer. We are taught how often to pray, what time of the day to recite which prayer, which words to say and which direction to face. But rarely are we trained in how to open ourselves up to the mood of reflection, and to feel God’s presence.

Why are so many of our young people turned off to Judaism and find it spiritually empty? All my life I’ve heard young people say the High Holy Days are the time for new clothes and old teachings. Talk to Jews who have opted out of Judaism for Eastern meditation and other spiritual expressions and they will tell you their memories of synagogue are those of a place where prayers were recited mechanically, with little emphasis on nurturing one’s soul.

The irony is that Judaism actually is filled with the kind of mysticism and spirituality that many of these people were unable to find. The tragedy within Jewish life is that proper efforts were never made to connect people to the majesty of the liturgy not only at this time of the year but year ’round. So much of it has seemed irrelevant, because the contemporary meaning was never unearthed for those who were in need of a better understanding and in search of relevance.

But in truth, that is but an excuse. So much of what appeared to be irrelevant was in fact extremely relevant, however the building blocks of Jewish knowledge that could support such relevancies were lacking. It is our responsibility to pick up the slack in our own knowledge base in order to be forthcoming with our spirituality. We must endeavor to make Judaism pulsate with fervor and meaning so that it will never become stale, eventually falling into disuse. On the other hand, our synagogues and our schools should not assume that prayer is so fundamental a part of Judaism that it need not be taught and discussed. It cannot be assumed that this is something that one can generally come to understand on one’s known. One primary aspect of Jewish prayer is that unlike Christianity, our clergy do not intercede on our behalf. Instead, our relationship with God is personal, but our prayers are strengthened by the community, by the sense of sharing that we experience when we pray together. And that is why it is preferable to pray as part of a Minyan (quorum) rather than alone, and why the liturgy emphasizes always the plural. It’s “Selach Lanu – forgive us” for our sins, that we say on Yom Kippur; not me or mine, but ours.

Each of us has to take the first step, from the place that we are today, at this moment. If we don’t know the message from Judaism, we at least know it from NIKE in their advertisements, “Just do it” – the rabbi and cantor cannot do it for you. All you need to do is open up your heart and allow yourselves to become part of it. If we are to ask God to keep the gates open for yet a little bit longer, as we do in the Ne’ilah service, then the least we can do is do the same for Him.

There is one other thought that I would like to leave you with. Many years ago, while living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a few of us organized a High Holiday Minyan in a small Shul in the Winnipeg Beach cottage area. While going to perform Tashlich we started calculating how many Jews were attending services in Winnipeg. Estimating the seating capacity of each Shul we came to a total capacity of 6,000 Jews if every seat were filled. Yet, there were 16,000 Jews living in Winnipeg at the time, where were the rest on the Jews? Over the years and in many of the cities I’ve lived in, I found the same calculation to be true, only about one-third of Jews in North American cities attend services on the High Holidays. For all intents and purposes, the three-time a year Jew should be counted among the “religious Jews” within each Jewish community.

My words are not intended to berate Jews who rarely attend services, quite the opposite; I admire them for their desire to cling to a tradition that may be slipping away from them. My intention is for the Jew who is frustrated being a mere spectator at an ancient rite when he/she could be the “star” of the show. In this coming year may we come to pray utilizing skills developed in order to tap into our fountain of Jewish knowledge and make our own participation meaningful. May we be strengthened in our commitment and devotion to the ideals of our special way of life and may we all receive a Chatima Tovah – a fate sealed with goodness,

Reb Yosil

Parshat VaYelech/Shabbat Shuvah

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT VAYELECH

SHABBAT SHUVAH

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 31:1-30

Haftarah – Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-27

120922

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Shabbat before Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Return” because the opening words of the Haftarah begin, “Shuvah Yisra’el Ahd HaShem Elokecha, – Return O Israel to HaShem your God” (Hosea 14:2). By transgressing HaShem’s commandments, we distance ourselves from Him. At this special time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we should take advantage of this auspicious time to return to our higher calling and renew our covenant with HaShem by aligning ourselves to His commandments.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In our Parsha this week Moshe Rabbeinu passes the mantle of leadership to his faithful disciple Yehoshu’a (Joshua), and Moshe steps aside and allows Yehoshu’a to guide Am Yisra’el – the nation of Israel. HaShem asks Moshe to summon Yehoshu’a to the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed (Tabernacle) so that they might receive instruction together. HaShem tells them that after Moshe passes away, Am Yisra’el will forsake the Torah and HaShem will conceal His Face from them and great suffering will ensue.

HaShem therefore commands Am Yisra’el to: “Kitvu Lachem Et HaShirah HaZot, V’Limdu Et B’nei Yisra’el, Simah B’Fihem, Liman Ti’hiyu Li HaShirah HaZot, L’Eid BiB’nei Yisra’el – Write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the B’nei Yisra’el, place it in their mouths, so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the B’nei Yisra’el” (Devarim 31:19). HaShem requires of every Jew to write a Sefer Torah (Kitvu Lachem Et HaShirah HaZot) in order to recall the covenant and the responsibility of that covenant between them and HaShem.

HaShem refers to the Torah as Shirah, commonly translated as ‘the song’ however, song is perhaps a bad translation. In Hebrew, Shirah can mean song or poem. A song has two parts, the music and the lyrics. Music would be referred to as Zimra; while the lyrics would be referred to a Shirah; therefore I believe that poem would be more accurate. This gives us great insight into what the Torah is and how we are to relate to it.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, commonly known as the NeTZIV (1817-1893) presents a beautiful explanation of this thought. He writes that scripture is commonly viewed as prose and therefore taken literally. However, if we relate to the Torah as poetry, then the purpose of the Torah Sh’Ba’al Peh (the oral Torah – a much needed organic understanding of the Torah), becomes clear, it illuminates and clarifies the meaning behind text by nuances: a change in spelling; awkward words or phrases; different sizes of letters; even meanings not visible in translations. Prose is literal, poetry is expansive.

For instance, when we read in the Torah that our matriarch Sarah lived for “one hundred years and twenty years and seven years” (Bereishit – Genesis 23:1), the unusual phrasing (100 + 20 + 7 years) is unusual and therefore alludes to a deeper meaning. The Torah is sending us a message that at the age of one hundred, Sarah had the beauty of a twenty year old and at twenty she had the innocence of a seven year old. When we look at the Torah as prose, we often gloss over the text. But when we view it as poetry, our oral tradition adds dimension and a wide spectrums of meaning to each and every word.

The verse that teaches us this is in itself a classic example of the opportunity to see deeper than just the words. The MaLBIM (acronym for Meir Leibush ben Yechi’el Michel, 1809-1879) asks why the Torah says “so that this song shall be for Me a witness, against the Children of Israel.” On first reading, one might understand from these words that when the Israel strays from the Torah, the Torah itself will testify against them. As prose, this seems to be HaShem’s intent. But does HaShem need a witness to govern the universe?

The MaLBIM explains with a parable. A king frees one of his subjects who was imprisoned for theft and appoints him to guard his treasury. Since the king knew that by nature this man was prone to thievery, and it was safe to assume that he might steal again, the king chronicled the appointment in full detail. The citizens believed that the king did so to warn the former thief, that if he ever stole in the future he would be put to death, for stealing from the king is an act of treason. But actually, the king’s reason for writing it all down was to remind himself, that if this man was ever caught stealing; the king should be lenient with him, for he should have known better than to appoint a thief as keeper of the treasury. So, too, HaShem records here: “So that this poem shall be for Me a witness, against the Children of Israel.” The King of kings proclaims that this poetry be recorded, with all its nuances and all its meanings so that God will always be aware of our shortcomings and act towards us in a merciful manner.

Those who study the Old Testament as prose, view HaShem as a Vengeful God. However, those who study the Torah as poetry, view HaShem as a Merciful God. On this Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of return when we read the words of Micah 14:2, 3 and 6: “Return, O Israel, unto the Lord your God, for you have fallen because of your sins. Take words with you and return to the Lord…I will heal their affliction, and I will take them back generously in love; for My anger has turned away from them.” At the approach of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when we beseech HaShem to be merciful with us, may we have the insight to see the poetry of His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom.

Reb Yosil

120915 -Parshat Netzavim/Rosh HaShanah

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT NETZAVIM – ROSH HASHANAH

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:9-31:30

Haftarah – Isaiah 61:10-63:9

120915

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

This Shabbat, you will probably noticed that something is missing from the service. Normally, the liturgy for the last Shabbat in any Jewish month features the Birkat HaChodesh – the Blessing of the New Month – an announcement of the day on which the new month falls in the week approaching, this year on Sunday night.

The practice of announcing the new moon’s arrival is ancient. Throughout the centuries, it has grown both in stature and in substance. Today, a simple announcement has burgeoned into a series of prayers second to none in their poetic beauty and magnificent melodies. The congregation stands while the cantor holds the Torah and prays for a month of happiness, blessing, sustenance, peace and piety. It is quite a moment, a pause in time to watch the moments ticking past, to consider that whatever last month may have brought us, life goes on (we hope, for the better).

But not every new month is awarded this elaborate advance announcement. There is this exception: the month of Tishre, the month that begins next week and marks the New Year. That is what we miss this Shabbat. The Shabbat prior to Tishre comes and goes without the ceremony announcing it.

The Baal Shem Tov explained the anomaly this way: “For the month that starts the New Year, God says the requisite blessing on the preceding Shabbat. By virtue of that divine act, we are empowered to bless the other months that follow.” At first glance it might also seem that we normally announce the month just so people will not forget to observe it when it comes, a reasonable fear given the fact that people owned no wall calendars in days of old. Going to synagogue on Shabbat was, among other things, a way to know when the new moon was expected and thus a way to assure yourself that you would not miss it. It kept one connected to the cycle of Jewish life, to the yearly calendar of seasons and experiences.

And more was involved than a mere announcement. Judaism associates different feeling tones with different months. Adar, for instance, which contains the merry festival of Purim, is associated with happiness. “When Adar arrives,” goes the saying, “celebration increases.” Hearing that Adar is about to arrive allows you to prepare yourself psychologically to adopt an apt Adar perspective — to look at the bright side of life and to anticipate that maybe you too might be visited by unexpected pleasures. Similarly, Av the month when both the Temples were destroyed signifies sorrow and provides the opportunity to come to terms with the lamentable side of human nature: war, persecution and suffering.

Tishre, too, has its peculiar quality. It is the beginning of the Jewish year. Its New Moon day is also the New Year day. Thus, Tishre evokes introspection, penitence and seriousness, even foreboding. Tradition provides considerable opportunity for appropriate spiritual preparation: the Shofar is blown daily during the previous month of Elul. Then just like this past week, Selichot services are held on a Saturday night just prior to Tishre’s arrival. There is really no need, therefore, to announce the new month for which everyone is already preparing. But more than that, tradition has considered it inappropriate to herald Tishre with the normal prayer for a happy, healthy month, lest we get the impression that this is just an ordinary month coming up, a month like all the rest, which it clearly is not.

Instead, it is as if history could stop at the close of this month; as if the world might come to an end if we do not come to terms with our transgressions; as if all bets are off until that final Shofar blast at Yom Kippur’s conclusion. This is the time of uncertainty, of dropping all pretenses that we are in charge of things, of considering how tenuous life really is and to answer the hard questions of our conscience and of God.

This Shabbat should remind us that we cannot hope and expect to go endlessly through life bestowing unlimited blessing on those we love. We have the right to get tired, we will sometimes fail, and we do need help. This Shabbat’s blessing, which we are not empowered to pronounce, underscores that message. Sometimes we are dependent on HaShem to do what we cannot. Millions are in recovery programs, admitting they have to “let go” and let HaShem in. Millions more would do anything to cure a child of leukemia, to bring back a teenage runaway, to save a marriage and there may be nothing they can do.

So we pass up the opportunity to announce Tishre. This month, we may not simply pray for happiness; rather, we must earn it, or at least earn the right to it, by examining our faults and making amends.

If all this sounds ominous, it is. We moderns have lost our appreciation of the ominous because we have largely escaped from the uncertainties built into living a life dependent on the natural flow of time. We prefer to tie winter to skiing trips, summer to vacations, spring to housecleaning and autumn to a new school year – all very interesting social institutions, no doubt, but hardly as substantial as ties experienced by people who are unshielded from nature’s idiosyncrasies. For many, winter is a time for freezing, summer for smoldering, autumn for hurricanes and spring for rain without which we starve.

The day Jews began moving to cities, they also lost the intrinsic connection between time and nature. In its place, however, they erected a web of meaning linking time to the human predicament: Adar to happiness, Av to sadness and Tishre to the foreboding uncertainty that is the very essence of our humanity.

We are here today and gone tomorrow. This Shabbat, having been denied the optimistic announcement of a new month’s dawning, we should think of more than just the World Series and the football season. Tishre tells us to come to terms with those we love and with God above, for we cannot guarantee that the breath we draw today will not be out last.

We cannot bless this month. We can only hope that we will be considered favorably in judgment and granted a new lease on life. It is HaShem’s place to begin but hopefully ours to finish the special task of blessing our months and sanctifying our time. May we only be worthy of such support.

In my own life, this past year has been a monumental challenge. A leg amputation and a series debilitating illnesses have been a great Nisayon (Divine ordeal) that drained me physically and spiritually. So many times I felt like giving up and yet during moments of lucidity I knew that HaShem was still providing me with the means to overcome my despair and loneliness. Between His grace and some wonderful love and encouragement from family and very special friends I’ve lived to see a great turnaround and blessing. This past week, the last week in the year 5772 has marked an unbelievable reversal. On Monday I started walking for the first time in a year and have progressed at a profound rate, today I even climbed up 40 steps and came down successfully but totally exhausted. HaShem works K’Heref Ayin – in the blink of an eye.

For me, the month of Tishre and the year 5773 heralds HaShem’s divine blessing for health, prosperity and above all hope.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tovah,

Reb Yosil

120825 – Parshat Shoftim

******************

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT SHOFTIM

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:18 – 21:9

Haftarah – Isaiah 51:12-52:12

120825

******************

We Jews have become very sensitive to the rise of neo–Nazism and Holocaust revisionism in our country and elsewhere. The lessons of our history and the painful experiences of our past force us to maintain a sense of vigi­lance when it comes to the Holocaust and anti–Semitism. As a result, we are, or at least should be, very bothered and troubled and frustrated by the ethnic cleansing that took place in Bosnia, Somalia and the Sudan. Any form of genocide, no matter where it might be practiced, if it exists as any part of our current world condition, is not something we can easily suffer on account of the legacy of our past.

And yet, if one looks at this week’s Parsha, we are faced with a difficult contradiction in terms of our own sensitivities and certain biblical mandates. In this week’s Torah reading, there is a description of the proposed Israelite mission as they are about to enter the Promised Land: “But only from these na­tions whose land you are to re­ceive as an inheri­tance from HaShem your God shall you allow nothing to live. Destroy them complete­ly: the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as commanded to you by HaShem your God” (Deut. 20:16-17). Clarification, this commandment applies only to the gentile population of the land of Israel; it does not apply to any faith group outside of the land.

This verse jumps out of the text, for how can we be so cruel? Isn’t every human-being created in the Divine image? Isn’t that what our universalistic Jewish tradition teaches? So how could the Torah issue a command which appears to be genocide? What seems even stranger is verse 19: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the axe against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down…”

Yes, kill the people, but save the apples? It seems like some­thing on the same order as the Greenpeace concern for whales and seals, while people in the large urban centers go hungry and home­less. Verse 19 continues: “Are trees of the field human, to withdraw before you into the be­sieged city?” In other words, the trees can’t defend themselves but people can, nor are they able to hoist a white flag and surrender. Therefore, if you are an orange, you have automatic clemency and protection. So what’s behind the idea of saving fruit trees as opposed to the people of the seven nations?

One reason might just be a practical consideration. Since man derives his basic, immediate sustenance from the fruit of the trees, it would be foolish to destroy the ecology that nourishes humankind. But that seems too simplistic and objective an answer for an issue upon which the Torah goes out of its way to make its point. Perhaps, then, there is another message here, which might also clarify our earlier questions and concerns about Jews and genocide.

Biblical history teaches us that the seven indigenous nations in Canaan refused to abide by the seven Noachide laws mandated by HaShem for every person on the planet, so that a divine standard is set for living a human existence. These seven laws of basic morality (revealed to No’ach after the flood coinciding with the rainbow covenant in Bereishit [Genesis] 9:11 ???), include prohibitions against murder, theft, immoral sexual behavior, idolatry, blaspheming God, butchering a living animal, as well as the positive commandment to establish courts of justice. The Torah teaches us that anyone who violates these fundamental laws of human exis­tence forfeits their claim of being created in God’s image.

There is an important point here that must not be over­looked. These seven nations or for that matter any gentile inhabitant in Eretz Yisra’el was not required to convert to Judaism, they were however required to accept the Noachide code in order to be a legal resident. Before the Israelites went out to wage battle, they were instructed to issue an appeal for peace. Both Maimonides and Nachmanides insist that we dare not raise a hand against any of the seven nations without first offering an olive branch and an opportunity for them to accept and embrace the Noachide code. If they surrender, we are absolutely forbidden to harm them in any way. Not only can they continue to live in the land, but, they certainly maintain that if it proves necessary, we must assume responsibility for their physical support and general welfare.

However, if they refuse the seven Noachide fundamentals of human existence, then: “You shall not let a soul remain alive.” In reject­ing the Noachide laws, the seven nations knew that they were risking death for every man, woman and child. Instead of accepting a life which would inhibit and prohibit the life to which they had become accustomed, they chose to fight and oppose these limitations.

And so the Torah commands us (if push comes to shove) to save the figs and eradicate the seven indigenous nations, not because of some absurd logic of racial supremacy, but rather to teach us that sometimes a human being, or even a nation, can sink so low and become so debased that they are worth less than a tree bearing fruit. Yes, a man who steals, robs, kills, eats the flesh of a living animal, rapes other men’s wives, spits upon any system of justice, blasphemes God or worships some idolatrous fantasy, has, in fact, sunk not only lower than an animal, but even lower than simple vegetation.

This is the ethic the Torah wants to teach in this episode. It’s a tragic, painful truth. For justice to survive, someone must be punished. For the planet to keep spinning, for the world to keep working, someone, sometimes must be removed. The Torah knows that a murderer and his victims cannot both remain free, living in the same city, without blood boiling over somewhere. And just as surgery is sometimes necessary to remove a cancerous, diseased limb or organ to save the rest of the body, here too, the ultimate Israelite society required its own surgery to eradicate the evil forces bent on the destruction of society based on an ungodly system.

It’s not easy for us to understand and visualize the land­scape of the Canaanite society as it existed back in the days of our people’s entrance into the land. HaShem in His infinite wisdom saw the need to create a level playing field for the young and developing Jewish nation. The holy land and the holy nation required an environment in which they could grow and prosper; reality based on honesty and integrity and not that of the debased culture that had preceded them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

120818 – Parshat Re’eh – Shabbat Rosh Chodesh

********************

VORTIFY YOURSELF

Reb Yosil Rosenzweig

rebyosil@gmail.com

PARSHAT  RE’EH

SHABBAT ROSH CHODESH

Devarim (Deut.) 11:26-16:17

Haftarah – Isaiah 66:1 – 66:24

120818

********************

As a result of the Jewish people suffering continuous religious persecution since the destruction of our second Temple (in 70 C.E.), Jews have become tolerant of other faiths and religions. However, this was not always the case. In ancient times, most of the world was very tolerant of other religions. People believed that gods were territorial, therefore when one left the boundaries of ones’ own gods’ influence; one therefore entered into the province of new and unfamiliar gods. Being tolerant of other religions was a necessary survival technique. One never knew when the gods of another territory would become demanding or, benevolent. Tolerance was necessary to not upset the local gods.

Along came the Hebrews who antagonized the world by not only preaching that their G-d was an invisible and all-powerful G-d, but equally important was that their G-d was the only legitimate G-d. The Hebrews were not very popular among the nations because they rejected any and all tolerance for the worship of wood and stone gods and other natural deities.

This obsession with the pursuit of religious truth finds its source in this week’s Parsha. “You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you are driving away worshiped their gods; on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. You shall break apart their altars; you shall smash their pillars; you shall burn their sacred trees with fire; you shall cut down their carved images; and you shall obliterate their sacred names from that place” (Devarim 12 2-3).

In ancient times, when one nation conquered another nation, it would try not to destroy the vanquished nation’s religious sites and objects. Just the opposite, the conquering nation often used these edifices which were usually beautifully constructed and very ornate, for their own purposes. The fact that the nation of Israel had to destroy the Temples, the idols and the religious symbols of the former inhabitants, was a revolutionary concept.

Our Parsha explains that HaShem declared that the seven nations occupying Eretz Yisra’el (the Land of Israel) had no right to worship as they pleased. Eretz Yisra’el had to be emancipated from any religious pollutants. Whether conquered or driven out, the non-Jewish resident aliens or wayfarers had no right to worship their gods or practice their own religious beliefs while on this holy ground. To make sure that these religious places and symbols did not infiltrate the conquering Hebrews, they had to be – “destroyed,” “broken apart,” “smashed,” “burnt,” “cut down,” and “obliterated.”  Any and all traces of these artifacts had to be eradicated lest they influence the Jewish population.

But all this destruction had a price. The very next verse reads: “You shall not do this to HaShem, your G-d” (12:4). RaShI (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 1040 – 1105) teaches us three different lessons:

  1. Offerings to HaShem can only be presented from the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later from the place that HaShem designates (the Temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem).
  2. It is forbidden to obliterate the name of HaShem. For this reason we do not write His name (G-d) unrestrictedly so that if the page is thrown away, discarded or desecrated His name will not be erased.
  3. RaShI brings a Sifri (circa 400 C.E., a Halachic [legal] Midrash [interpretation] of the Books of BaMidbar [Numbers] and Devarim) that warns:
    • “Rabbi Ishmael said: Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts? To be more precise, do not do anything that would CAUSE your religious places TO BE DESTROYED.”

Rabbi Ishmael asks if one could imagine Israel doing such a terrible thing. But in the history of our nation and in the very days of Rabbi Ishmael, such desecrations did happen. Our Temple was desecrated by Hellenist Jews (during the Chanukah period of our history) by bringing in Greek idols and offering non-kosher animals as sacrifices. Rabbi Ishmael knew very well that terrible acts of desecration were committed by the Sadducees during the Roman period. Even recently, in modern Israel, acts of desecration are perpetrated by Jews against differing Jews and their religious institutions. Rabbi Ishmael, who was martyred by the Romans and whose wretched death was cheered on by Jews who were Roman sympathizers, knew full well what Jews were capable of. How could he say, “Could one even think that the Israelites would destroy their own religious places and artifacts?”

I found an interesting answer to this question from Rabbi Ya’acov Haber formerly of Melbourne, Australia, who mentions that the first Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law) is: “…if the performance of a Mitzvah will embarrass you (for example, praying Mincha [afternoon prayers] on a public highway, or saying grace at a board meeting, perhaps even sporting a Kippa [skull-cap] at your work place), you should still do it.

“However, the Mishnah Berurah [an updated version of the code – written by the Chafetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisra’el Meir HaKohen Kagen, 1838-1933] quotes the Beit Yosef [Rabbi Yosef Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, 1488-1575] as saying that, ‘…one should not go out of their way to antagonize people even in the performance of a Mitzvah (for example, deliberately praying Mincha on a public highway when it is unnecessary), since that will give one’s personality the characteristic of Chutzpa (insolence) [in the words of the Beit Yosef] YiK’neh B’Nafsho Midat HaAzut (one’s soul will acquire the characteristic of insolence), which will then be used for less than noble purposes’ ” (Reachings – Talks on Torah, page 172).

What Rabbi Haber means is if one performs Mitzvot either in an antagonizing manner or worse doing so specifically to antagonize, then that behavior will continue in non-Mitzvah situations which will become physiologically and spiritually destructive.

When I lived in Israel, I served in the Israeli Army reserves. During my short basic training (I was 35 years old, married with 3 children and established in business) I served with other immigrants from similar backgrounds and ages. Clearly one-third of our group was religious and many were from the “ultra-orthodox” camp.

During that time I began noticing that the more physically challenging and strenuous our training got, the more our sophisticated and personally disciplined group began to act in a boorish manner. Our character began to change, we began using rough and profane language, and sometimes we behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable in “religious” society. I realized that in civilian life, we suppress certain feelings, desires and forces, but in the army those very forces are encouraged and relied upon. The increase in physical activity and extreme conditions had a powerfully negative effect on us. As civilized human beings and religious Jews, we were forced to keep ourselves in check otherwise we were capable of Chutzpa (unbecoming behavior).

This is what Moshe was saying to us. Am Yisra’el (the nation of Israel) will spend considerable time conquering the land and making it suitable for a Torah based population. In the process, we might become crass and boorish, which would make us insensitive to one another.

In the post-Holocaust era, Am Yisra’el also had to lift itself up out of the ashes. A state had to be formed and wars unfortunately had to be fought. These battles for independence were fought in the Sinai desert, the Galilee and on the West Bank, but there were other battles that Am Yisra’el also fought: spiritual battles in America and in the Soviet Union; on campuses in Berkeley and Jerusalem; in the suburbs of our great cities; in the outposts of Siberia; and in the disengagement of Gaza. Our leadership spoke about tolerance and acted with intolerance, decried injustice and meted out inequity. We expounded community and acted as segregationists. And today Eretz Yisra’el has become our modern battleground for self-righteousness and self-centeredness.

It is one thing to understand a problem and another to rectify it. That is the real Tikkun Olam (world rectification) that very few of us are attempting. We must demand dialogue among our Rabbis and lay leaders. When we use these hidden and subdued forces within us they take a toll on how we think and how we behave. Our very souls have become inundated with self-righteous insolence that we aren’t even aware of it.

Moshe is warning us to be very careful with the use of necessary force. While it was imperative to destroy the idols and the holy places of the Canaanite nations, he cautioned us that those very same energies could also be used against each other and against HaShem. Even today, as we battle for our homeland and for the very souls of our brethren, we must use extreme caution. Otherwise, the results can be tragic.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reb Yosil

Previous Older Entries