Archive | October, 2014

Commentary for Lech Lecha

31 Oct

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, Abraham receives a calling from God. He is to leave his homeland and leave his father’s household and go to the land of Cana’an and spread the word of monotheism and belief in the One True God. Before this happens, we know very little of Abraham. We know who his father and brothers were, where he was born, the name of woman he married, and the place he was living at the time. This isn’t much information, and in fact, is not much more than we know about most of the other individuals listed in the various genealogies found in the pre-Abraham chapters of Genesis. He seems to be, for all intents and purposes, just another guy.

The commentators seek to explain why this apparently random fellow is chosen for the important task of telling everyone about God. Many focus on the idea that Abraham was already a monotheist before Gold called to him, telling stories of Abraham working in his father’s idol shop and using logic to show both customers and his father the foolishness of worshipping idols.

When God calls to Abraham, God asks him to undertake a new, more difficult challenge. He must leave the lands where his father’s name, influence, and reputation might protect him, and journey to a land where he will be a complete foreigner, and spread the belief in the One True God there.

The past few weeks are time of spiritual high for the Jewish People. Moving High Holiday services help us focus ourselves on honest introspection, aiding us in clarifying our personal goals for the new year. We then enter into the long period of the holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah, which are all referred to as “the time of our rejoicing,” and the joy of Simchat Torah spills over into the following Shabbat, when the first parshah of the Torah is read again. The week after that contains the celebration of Rosh Chodesh, concluding the month of Tishrei and beginning the month of Cheshvan.

Unlike Tishrei, Cheshvan has no holidays, and is sometimes referred to as Mar-Cheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan) for this reason. Without the joy of the holidays and the feeling of closeness to God that they bring, the resolutions we make on High Holidays, which shone like beacons in the distance, illuminating the path to where we truly want to be, begin to fade. We return to the “real world” of work and responsibilities, and things begin to simply “get in the way.” We put our goals off, we procrastinate, and all too often we simply give up when the going starts to get tough.

Abraham did not give up. When God put challenges in his way, Abraham accepted them head-on. As we now march full-fledged into the month of Cheshvan, we must learn from Abraham’s example, and not allow life’s challenges to get in the way of fulfilling the goals we have set for ourselves for the new year.

Commentary for Noach

28 Oct

This week’s parshah starts with the story of Noah, and ends with the beginning of the story of Abraham. These two men were in very similar situations: Noah is the head of the lone God-fearing family in his age, and Abraham is the first monotheist of his time, and head of the lone family that believe in the one true God. In fact, after the Flood, when Noah’s family is the only family around, every living person in the world believed in the one true God and no other. It seems like a perfect time to start the Jewish People. Why, then, does God only give the Noachide laws (which must be followed by Jews and non-Jews alike) instead of starting to give laws that only apply to Jews? For what reason did God decide that Abraham should be the founder of the Jewish People instead of Noah?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 108a) records a well-known debate that calls the level of Noah’s righteousness into question. The opening verse of the parshah describes Noah as “a righteous man, perfect in his generation; Noah walked with God (Gen. 6:9).” The rabbis focus on the seemingly extraneous phrase “in his generation,” and seek to learn what it is meant to teach us. Reish Lakish argues that this teaches us that if Noah was able to be righteous and perfect in his generation, which was full of sinners, how much more righteous would he have been able to be in another generation, with more positive influences around him. Rabbi Yochanan, on the other hand, interprets this phrase to mean that in a generation full of sinners, Noah was righteous enough to be considered “perfect” for the purpose God wanted him for (restarting the human race from people with a good moral grounding), but in a generation that wasn’t full of such horrible people, he would not have stood out for his righteousness the way that others have. Rashi specifically brings Abraham up as a comparison and interprets the phrase “Noah walked with God” to mean that Noah needed God’s help to overcome his evil inclination, whereas Abraham was able to do so on his own.

There is a bit in Bill Cosby’s “Noah” routine where one of Noah’s neighbors spots the ark and asks, “what’s this thing for, anyway?” to which Noah replies, “I can’t tell you. Hahahahaha!” The neighbor then asks, “can’t you give me a little hint?” to which Noah responds “how long can your tread water? Hahaha!”

While there is no textual basis for this or any similar exchange, there is a quote from Isaiah in which the prophet describes the Flood in its destructive capacity as “the waters of Noah (54:9).” Over the centuries, many wondered why the waters that killed everyone else would be referred to as “the waters of Noah.” The Zohar answers this question by comparing Noah and Abraham. Upon learning that God was planning to wipe out the rest of humanity, but that he and his family would be saved, Noah set to work building the ark. Upon learning that God planned to wipe out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham immediately started to bargain with God and try to convince God to not destroy them (as recounted in Gen. 18).

While Noah thought only of himself and his family, Abraham thought of everyone. It is not enough to be righteous ourselves. We must do what we can to help others be righteous as well, whether by creating opportunities like tzedakah campaigns or food drives which make giving charity easier for others, or simply by setting good examples of yiddishkeit as we go about our daily lives. As the Gemara reminds us more than once: we are all responsible for one another.

Commentary for Bereishit

20 Oct

The story of creation is a very detailed one. Not necessarily in the way that we think of details today, with a step-by-step recap telling us exactly how God inserted tab A into slot B and thus caused grass to spring up from the ground, but it is detailed nonetheless. It gives us the details we need to be able to learn from it.

The Torah tells us that God created “every kind of living creature” whether it lives in the sea (Gen. 1:21) or on the land (Gen 1:24). No matter whether it is a microscopic amoeba or a gigantic blue whale; a predatory lion or the herbivorous gazelle that it eats. It can be a camel that lives in the sweltering desert or an emperor penguin that lives in the bone-chilling tundra of Antarctica; a Kangaroo, which is exclusive to Australia or a Blue Jay, which only lives in North America. The diurnal Gorilla and the nocturnal raccoon; intelligent humans or unintelligent lemmings. The hawk that soars high in the sky and the fangtooth fish that lives deep beneath the ocean’s surface. God created them all. Even giant sea monsters (Gen 1:21).

A midrash found on Baba Batra 74b-75a identifies these “giant sea monsters” as the leviathan mentioned in Isaiah (27:1), Psalms (104:26), and most notably in chapters 40 and 41 of Job. The midrash say that God created two leviathans, but not wanting the massive creatures to reproduce and create a race that would consume all others, God slew one of them, pickled its meat, and will serve it to the righteous in a giant feast beneath a sukkah made out of the leviathan’s skin at the end of days.

While many translations translate the strong wind that separated the Red Sea (Ex. 14:21) as an “eastern wind,” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (18th century Poland) instead translates it as an “ancient wind,” put in place during the creation of the world specifically for that purpose because “God does not change or suspend the laws of nature,” but rather works through natural forces. So, too, in the case of the leviathan, did God work through natural forces.   The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat tells us about a very, very small creature called the “kilbit” which kills large aquatic creatures by burrowing into their ear (or gills, depending on your translation). Every creature, from the largest to the smallest, has its role to play in God’s world.

It is for this reason that God brings all of the animals before Adam when Adam is searching for a mate. He evaluates all them completely, evaluating all of their qualities before giving them each a name. So, too, do we all, from the tallest to the smallest, each have unique names and a unique role to play in God’s world.

Commentary for Simchat Torah

20 Oct

Simchat Torah has many unique customs. It is the only time of the year where the Priestly Blessing is recited during Shacharit instead of during Musaf (the reason for this is that it is forbidden to perform the Priestly Blessing while inebriated, and many responsible adults consume alcohol during Hakafot, which take place after Shacharit but before Musaf, so we move the Priestly Blessing to Shacharit so that the Cohanim can drink as much as they want during Hakafot). There is also a custom to bother the chazzan while he or she is chanting the repetition of the Musaf Amidah, taking advantage of the fact that chazzan cannot move during the repetition, but the congregants can because they have already finished their Amidah (though at some point in our past, one Beth Ahm Rabbi cleverly instituted the practice of the heicha Kedushah in which the congregation and chazzan recites the first two blessings of the Amidah out loud, then the congregation joins in for the Kedushah, after which the chazzan continues silently while the congregation goes back and starts the Amidah silently from the beginning, allowing the chazzan to finish before the congregation does).

It is also the only time that we read from the Torah at night. The reason for this is because it is considered disrespectful to take the Torah out in the grandiose fashion that we do during prayers and then not read from it. When we take the Torah out of the ark, we do not just simply remove the scroll from a fancy closet. We read verses from the Torah about what would happen when the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Torah was kept, was being moved when the Israelites set out from their camp. We read verses from the Prophets and from Psalms proclaiming the greatness of the Torah and its Divine Author, and praising of those who hold fast to it. We parade it around the room so that everyone can touch it and feel close to it and show it the respect it is due. Then, after we are done reading from it, we make a show of dressing it up against, and do the whole thing in reverse. On Simchat Torah, we take this to a whole other level, with dancing and singing. How could we possibly go through all of this to take the Torah out and not read from it?

The Torah is not like other books, which we simply pull off of the shelf, read, enjoy for a bit, then put them back and forget about them. Even when we are done reading the Torah for now, we take its wisdom and values with us out into the world. We keep them on our minds night and day, whether sitting at home or going out into the wider world. We use them to inform our actions. When something is this important, how can we not make a big deal out of the simple act of taking it out or putting it away, and when something is this important, how could we possibly consider taking it out without reading it?

Commentary for Shemini Atzeret

20 Oct

Shemini Atzeret is a strange holiday. In fact, whether or not it can even be called a “holiday” seems debatable. The Torah makes quite clear that melachah (creative work forbidden on Shabbat and holidays) is forbidden on this day (Lev. 23:36, Num. 29:35), but nowhere does the text refer to Shemini Atzeret as a “festival” like it does for Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot. While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are also not called festivals, they are both referred to as Sabbaths, and as “sacred occasions” each time they are mentioned. Shemini Atzeret is only called a “sacred occasion” once (Lev. 23:36), and is always referred to as an “atzeret,” which is usually translated as a “gathering.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Shemini Atzeret has no commandments unique to it. In fact, the only commandments it has are to do no melachah, and to offer a sacrifice to God. The normal method of hermeneutics used by the Rabbis to glean new information by the comparison of a similar term fails to help here, because the only other day referred to in the Torah as an “atzeret” is the seventh day of Passover, which also has no special mitzvot regarding its observance that do not apply to all of the other days of Passover.

If we follow this example, we come to the conclusion that perhaps Shemini Atzeret is merely the final day of Sukkot. This would make Sukkot mirror Passover, starting with one day on which melachah is prohibited, having intermediate days on which it is permitted, and then concluding with a final day on which melachah is prohibited. Whereas most of the other holidays are introduced as “in the Y month on the X day,” Shemini Atzeret is always simply referred to as occurring “on the eighth day,” and not even once in the entire Bible is it mentioned without being directly after a mention of Sukkot. In the Kiddush for Shemini Atzeret, as well as in the special Ya’aleh v’Yavo prayer inserted into the Amidah and the Grace After Meals, Shemini Atzeret, like Sukkot, is referred to as “the time of our happiness,” but this theory also runs into a problem because Shemini Atzeret is specifically listed as its own holiday, with its own insertion into the holiday Kiddush and Ya’aleh v’Yavo.

With further investigation, the theory that Shemini Atzeret is part of Sukkot seems to fall apart. The Gemarah (Sukkot 47- 48a) lists several ways that Shemini Atzeret differs from Sukkot. In addition to having its own Kiddush, we also say the Shehechiyanu prayer after Kiddush on Shemini Atzeret, which we do to acknowledge the beginning of new holiday. The sacrifices for Shemini Atzeret do not follow the pattern established by those for Sukkot, either in terms of the descending number per day or the manner in which the priests were assigned to their tasks, and the use of water as a libation, a practice only performed on Sukkot, is not done on Shemini Atzeret. The Levites sang a special psalm on Shemini Atzeret (Psalm 12) that they did not sing during Sukkot, and the major mitzvot of Sukkot, such as waving the lulav and etrog bundle and eating in the sukkah don’t apply (although those in the Diaspora do eat in the sukkah on Shemini Atzeret in order to extend Sukkot an extra day). What, then, is the point of a holiday with no mitzvot to make it unique?

Many commentators take note of the fact that Shemini Atzeret is described as an “atzeret for you (Num. 29:35)” rather than a “festival for the Lord” or some similar designation used for other holidays. In addition to “gathering,” atzeret, coming from the root meaning “to restrain.”   While other holy times have unique, beautiful mitzvot, there is also some stress that comes attached to those mitzvot. Do I have all of my meals cooked before Shabbat? Will I have enough time to clean my house and re-kasher my kitchen for Passover? Will I have enough time to build my sukkah and buy my lulav and etrog? Shemini Atzeret is a holiday for us, where we are restrained from the normal holiday stresses, and free to enjoy our connection to God and to our fellow Jews.

Commentary for Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

12 Oct

This week’s parshah, the special reading for whenever Shabbat falls on Chol Hamo’ed (the intermediary days of Sukkot and Passover), seems to have very little connection to Sukkot. It tells the story of the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf, wherein Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites despite their transgression, and God does so, then commands Moses to carve new tablets to replace the originals (which Moses had thrown down in anger upon seeing the people worship the Golden Calf), to serve as a symbol of the reforging of the covenant between God and the Jewish People. Sukkot is only mentioned in passing, first in 34:22, and then again in the next verse as one of the three pilgrimage festivals. Passover, the other holiday where this parshah is read, is mentioned several times, and some of its laws are laid out. Even the remaining pilgrimage festival, Shavuot, on which this parshah is not even read, gets more attention to paid to it than Sukkot does, as one of its important mitzvot, the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple, is noted. Sukkot, though, is only mentioned in passing, and none of its unique commandments are mentioned.

One of these commandments that are not mentioned by this week’s parshah is the mitzvah of eating in a sukkah. Because we are fulfilling a mitzvah, we try to make our meals on the sukkah more joyous and festive than any regular old meal would be. One of the ways that we do this is by inviting guests to eat with us in our sukkah, so we invite our friends and family to celebrate the holiday with us, and we perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests).

In addition to our flesh-and-blood guests, there is also the custom to welcome spiritual guests into our sukkah. These seven great heroes of our past, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David, collectively know as the ushpizin, are welcomed into our sukkah each night of the holiday, with each taking a night to be the special guest of honor. This custom is first mentioned in the Zohar (103b-104a), which also tells us that the portion of food that would be reserved for the guest of honor should be given to the poor. Abba Shaul teaches that we can glorify God by acting as God does. Just as God as God takes care of the poor, so should we take care of the poor. Just as God visits the sick, so too should we visit the sick. Just as God is forgiving, so too should we try to be forgiving.

Kabalah teaches that although Yom Kippur has passed, the gates of atonement remain open through Hoshsana Rabah, the final day of Sukkot. In this week’s parshah, we see God’s attribute of mercy shining through, and just as God forgives the Israelites, so too must we learn to forgive those who have wronged us. From this parshah we learn the Divine attributes of God that we invoke on Yom Kippur: “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and faithfulness. Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34:6-7).” These are the attributes that we must learn to adapt, not only for the next few days, but for the rest of our lives.

Commentary for Sukkot

8 Oct

Exodus 15:2, sung by the Israelites as part of the Song of the Sea, reads “This is my God, and I shall glorify Him.” This seems like a pretty straightforward verse, but in reality, it brings up some very interesting questions. One of these questions is asked by Rabbi Ishmael: “Is it possible for a being of flesh and blood to add glory to its Creator?” Rabbi Ishmael then answers his own question: “It simply means I shall be beautiful before him in observing the commandments. I shall prepare before him a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitizt, beautiful tefillin (Shabbat 133b).” From Rabbi Ishmael’s statement, we derive the concept of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying a mitzvah). You could make Kiddush in a paper cup if you wanted, and you would still fulfill the mitzvah (provided that the cup is large enough to hold the minimum about of wine or grape juice required), but having a special, fancier cup that is only used for Kiddush makes the mitzvah more beautiful.

One of the ways that we perform hiddur mitzvah on Sukkot is by decorating our sukkah to make it more beautiful. These decorations can be anything from flowers to paper chains to plastic fruit to pictures of famous biblical scenes. The Lubavtich Chassidic sect takes a different approach to the idea of decorating the sukkah: “Our guest are our decorations.”

Sukkot is a holiday about community. It is one of the three pilgrimage holidays (along with Passover and Shavuot). When the Holy Temple still stood, Israelites would come from all across the land and gather together in Jerusalem to make offerings to God. Just as the Israelites gathered together back then, so too do we gather together in our sukkot today, enjoying hot food and warm company to help the walls of the sukkah keep out the cold.

Commentary for Yom Kippur

3 Oct

The Kol Nidrei service has been a source of controversy for centuries.  Its text, as summarized in the Rabbinical Assembly’s machzor reads “All vows and oaths we take, all promises and obligations we make to God between this Yom Kippur and the next we hereby publicly retract in the event that we should forget, and hereby declare our intention to be absolved of them (p. 353),” has been used by anti-Semites throughout the generations (who have conveniently ignored the qualifying phrase “in the event that we should forget them”) as proof that Jews intend to be dishonest from the start, and thus can never be trusted.

Obviously this is not the case.   The Torah clearly states that “anyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the LORD your God (Deut. 25:16),” and even if the act of announcing to your entire congregation that you do not intend to keep any agreement you make over the course of the next year was sufficient to protect one from violating this precept, then any dealing with anyone not in the same synagogue with you on Yom Kippur, whether the person is a gentile or a fellow Jew, would still violate the commandment of not putting a stumbling block in front of the blind (Lev. 19:14) and thus unacceptable in the eyes of God.

The perpetuation of this idea that Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur act as a spiritual “get out of jail free” card for any wrongdoings one commits over the course of a year comes from a misunderstanding of what Yom Kippur is, by both Jews and non-Jews alike.  Yom Kippur is not a mechanical ceremony in which everyone who shows up and says the magic words is automatically cleansed of all sin.  The rabbis of the Mishnah are quite clear on this point: “One who says ‘I will sin and Yom Kippur will provide atonement [for the sin], Yom Kippur does not provide atonement (Yoma 8:9).”  What Yom Kippur is is a day to honestly admit our failures to both ourselves and God, and to focus ourselves on doing better in the coming year.
In order be absolved of our sins, we must first atone for them.  No one can repent for our sins in our place.  We must do it ourselves.  If we want to be pardoned for straying from God’s path, we must first show God that we wish to return to it.

And so on Yom Kippur we reflect on our wrongdoings, and we vow to not repeat them.  But we know that just as we have not been perfect in the year that has passed, we will not be perfect in the coming year either, and so we do Kol Nidrei and nullify our vows before we make them, so as to not also make ourselves guilty of the sin of oath-breaking if we should slip up and repeat the misdeeds that we vow to correct.  In this way, Kol Nidrei functions as a safety net to ensure that in our desire to repent we do not set ourselves up to sin even more.  But just because we have this safety net does not mean it is okay to give up and allow ourselves to fall.

By the very virtue of doing Kol Nidrei, we are acknowledging that we are flawed; that we will make mistakes in the coming year.  Then, immediately after Kol Nidrei, we begin Yom Kippur, where we vow, in spite of those very flaws, to improve ourselves and become the best person we can be.