Archive | October, 2016

Commentary for Sukkot

16 Oct

One of the oldest metaphors used to describe the relationship between the Jewish People and God is that of a marriage. Dating back to Biblical times, this comparison has itself spawned many others that extend this metaphor involving many facets of Jewish life, but one of the most well-known envisions the three pilgrimage holidays- Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as the stages of a marriage ceremony, with Passover representing the betrothal, Shavuot the marriage ceremony, and Sukkot the consummation.


Another, less well-known comparison, looks at this metaphor on a more individual level. It compares the relationship between God and each individual Jew at the time of the High Holidays as a marriage in crisis. We admit that we have done wrong, and on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we have an honest discussion with God to determine whether or not we want to put in the effort to make it work.


Coming a mere five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is our first chance to show God that we are truly committed to this relationship. Sukkot is a holiday of many mitzvot and customs, and many of them are geared towards helping us in this endeavor, either by prescribing actions that help us show our dedication directly or by serving as symbolic reminders of what we should be doing.


The Sukkot sacrifices show our willingness to give gifts to God, just as God has gifted us with the food that sustains us. In the Sukkah we expose ourselves to the elements, trusting in God that they will not harm us. The lulav, etrog, myrtle, and willow, which we are commanded to bring together on Sukkot, symbolize Jews of all different levels of knowledge and observance. Each night it is customary to sing songs and tell stories of biblical figures whose virtues we wish to emulate. We start on the first night with Abraham, who was renown for his generosity and for inviting others to dine with him in his tent, and so we also invite guests to dine with us in our sukkah, including the poor. Rabbi Moshe Bamberger teaches that the position of the s’chach (the roof of the sukkah)- constructed out of the leavings of the plant kingdom that are usually useless to humans for the purposes of construction or consumption- high above the bounty of the harvest being served on the table us teaches not to be haughty, take our position for granted, or look down on the poor, for we, too, may one day be in their situation. We have spent the past two weeks promising to be better. On Sukkot, we are given the chance to prove that we will be.

Commentary for Ha’azinu

16 Oct

This week’s parshah is notable for the unusual format in which most of it is written. The first six aliyot are a long poem by Moses, prophesying the future of the Israelites, and as such is written in a special format. What would usually be one column in the Torah is split into two, thinner columns with blank space in the middle, although it is still read as if it were all one column (with the reader continuing from the top line of the first column over to the top line of the second and then to the second line of the first column and so on).

This poetic format also lends itself to making the beginnings and ends of the verses very easy to find, as each verse ends at either the end of the full line, or at the end of the right-hand column, in the middle of the “full” column, causing the next verse to start with the first word of the line in the left hand column, also in the middle of the line. Sefer Tagin notes that this poem can be split up into three sections based on this: 32:1-14, which all start at the beginning of the line, speak of the Israelites obey God’s will and reaping the rewards. 32:14 ends in the middle, and the second section, 32:15-39, all start in the middle of the line, and all talk about the Israelites spurning God and suffering the consequences for it. 32:39 ends at the end of the line, and the third section, 32:40-44, which all talk about God showing mercy to the Israelites and punishing their oppressors, all start at the beginning of the line again.

While 32:39 contains a clear transitional element from punishment to mercy (“I put to death and I bring to life. I struck down and I will heal”), no such transition is obvious in 32:14 at the end of the first section. 32:14 does, however, end with the very unusual phrase “you drink the blood of grapes like delicious wine.” While “the blood of grapes” obviously seems to be a fancy figure of speech to describe wine, it begs the question why the verse adds in the phrase “like delicious wine,” seemingly explaining its own expression in a very dry and un-poetic way. At the same time, the rest of the verse is fairly plain, simply listing the various foods the Israelites will enjoy with God’s favor, with no poetry at all until the penultimate phrase describing “wheat as fat as kidneys” and then the extremely odd final phrase.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that these phrases are the transition. Our simple list of foods becomes flowery and poetic, first innocuously, and then in a unusual simile that is almost jarring in its barbaric description of the normal act of drinking, setting the stage for the next verses excoriation of the Israelites for becoming “fat” and “corpulent” and forgetting that God is the source of their sustenance. This veiled transition reflects the way that we ourselves fall into sinful behavior. No one wakes up in the morning and randomly decides to go rob a bank. We start with small, little, things that don’t even feel off the course, and yet we soon find ourselves spiraling further and further until the point where we find ourselves never getting to our intended destination- always stopping in the middle of the line. But if we keep this lesson in mind we can be on the lookout for warning signs and stop ourselves before we wander too far off course.

Commentary for Yom Kippur

16 Oct

The most common metaphor found throughout the High Holiday services is that of God as a judge presiding over a court, hearing the evidence for and against us, and deciding what our sentence will be. The reason this imagery is invoked is obvious: courts have been around in some form or another since soon after the development of human society, so it is an image that is relatable to people of all generations, from the first generation of Jews down to us today and far into the future. Also, it’s probably pretty darn accurate. If we follow the courtroom metaphor, though, we run into an interesting abnormality in what first appeared to be rather a perfect picture.
Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment,” on which God judges us for our deeds and we ask God to show us mercy. It is followed by Yom Kippur, when we confess and apologize for those sins upon which God has judged us. If we want God to judge us with mercy on Rosh Hashanah, then shouldn’t we start atoning and apologizing for our sins before our day in court?    A criminal who expresses remorse before and during the trial will be seen as a lot more sincere in his or her repentance- and thus more likely to be shown leniency- than one who starts to show remorse only after being sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Let’s face it: going into the High Holidays, we all have a pretty good idea of what we have done wrong over the past year, and in case we didn’t or we forgot something, we start to say Slichot- including the Vidu’i (“confession”) a week beforehand. Going into Rosh Hashanah, we should all know just about where we stand.
On Rosh Hashanah we come before God praying for mercy, and we are given a suspended sentence. As we read in the U’netaneh Tokef during the Musaf service of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “On Rosh Hashanah it will be written” “how many will pass and how many will be created; who will live and who will die… who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.” These are all written in the future tense.
Between those two passages, though, is one more phrase: “and on the fast of Yom Kippur it will be inscribed.” After the second passage, the paragraph then finishes off with a final message: “But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the severity of the decree.” When we read this paragraph on Rosh Hashanah, it serves as our final wake-up call.
The Kotzker Rebbe said, “One who is on the bottom of a ladder and climbing up is far higher than one on the top of the ladder who is on his way down.” On Yom Kippur we return to be judged by God once again, having received our sentence on Rosh Hashanah and having had one week to act upon that information. On Yom Kippur we do not merely come before God asking for atonement before our judgment is sealed, but we come to God with sincerity in our hearts and minds hoping to be able to prove that we deserve that atonement. On Rosh Hashanah we find out where we stand. On Yom Kippur, we show God that we want to go up the ladder and not down.

Commentary for Vayeilech

10 Oct

The Torah is divided into fifty-four parshahs- fifty-three of which are read in shul on Shabbat and the final parshah, V’zot Hab’rachah, which is read on Simchat Torah (and on Shabbat under rare calendar circumstances that can only happen in Israel). However, because the Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar of only 356 days, there are only either fifty or fifty-one Shabbats, and at least two of those will always fall during a holiday and thus require their own reading, leaving us with either forty-eight or forty-nine weeks to complete fifty-three parshahs. To deal with this issue, the Rabbis designated certain pairs of parshahs that are read together on the same Shabbat if need be, in order to make sure that all fifty-three regular weekly parshahs are read on Shabbat every cycle.

These pairs of parshahs each either have a strong thematic connection (such as Tazria and Metzora, which both deal with various ritual impurities) or almost no connection at all (such as Behar and Bechukotai). This week’s parshah, Vayeilech, is often read with last week’s parshah, Nitzavim, with which it shares some thematic connection (both deal with the consequences that will befall the Israelites if they disobey God once they have entered Promised Land), but when we get to the end of Vayeilech, we are left wondering why it was paired with Nitzavim instead of next week’s parshah, Ha’azinu.

After many warnings to the Israelites to keep their faith in God even in rough times and not to succumb to the temptations of idolatry, Moses, declares to the Israelites that he has written a grand poem which, along with the Torah, the heavens, and the earth, will be a “witness” upon the Israelites, meaning that it will serve as evidence that they have been warned about the consequences of sinning, and cannot claim ignorance as an excuse in the face of punishment. Deut: 31:30 reads “Then Moses recited the words of this poem in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel, to the very end.” And then the parshah just ends, with the poem in question taking up the majority of next week’s parshah, Ha’azinu. It is almost impossible to have a more natural continuation of the story and theme than this sort of cliffhanger ending, and yet Vayeilech and Ha’azinu are not read together.

Due to the time of the year at which they fall, Vayeilech and Ha’azinu are always separated by either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. During the High Holidays we make many promises to ourselves. Unfortunately, we are not always the best at keeping these promises. In this week’s parshah, Moses tells us his poem, along with the Torah, the heavens, and the earth, will be a witness upon the Israelites, able to “testify” that they were forewarned as to the nature and consequences of sin, and thus their sins have not been committed out of ignorance. We make many promises to ourselves over the course of the High Holidays, and when we return to shul next week and hear Moses’ testimonial poem recited, it will serve as a witness upon us, too. We have spent the High Holidays identifying our bad behaviors and vowing to fix them, but we need to make sure we follow through on those promises because now that we have identified our faults, next year we will not be able to plead ignorance.


Commentary for Rosh Hashanah

6 Oct

The main thrust of the morning services on the High Holidays begin in a remarkably different manner than on other days of the year. Usually the leader of the service, the shaliach tzibur, (literally “messenger of the congregation”) ascends to the podium, and then begins to pray. On the High Holidays, though, the leader begins to pray from wherever he or she happens to be standing at the time, and continues to do so the whole way up to the podium.
The prayers the leader recites (beginning at the top of page 106) speak of God’s awesome might and glory, and praise God as the sovereign of the universe, sitting on a throne like a monarch before the royal court, ready to render judgment. The purpose of this is twofold. In addition to the standard goal of glorifying God, it is also intended to help instill the humility necessary for the day’s task in all of those present. In this way, the shaliach tzibur serves not only as a messenger of the community, but also as a messenger to the community, reminding them before Whom they stand, so that they can enter the proper mindset for this important day of prayer.
We all like to think that when we pray, we show up already with the proper mindset, but there is nothing wrong with a little ego check just in case, because we might not even realize that our disposition is not quite as reverent as we thought it was. This even happens to the best of us, as Abraham and Sarah learned. At ages one hundred and ninety respectively, when each of them was first told that God would provide them with a child, each responded by bursting out into laughter (Abraham in Gen. 17:16-17, and Sarah in Gen. 18:9-12), apparently not believing that God, the creator of the universe, had the power to cause an elderly couple to conceive a child. Both are given a slight reprimand for this conduct, Abraham in 17:19, together in 18:13-14, and Sarah in 18:15), with God pointedly asking in 18:14, “is anything too wondrous for the LORD?” God, of course, proved them wrong, and as promised, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, as we read in the Torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The rest of chapter eighteen continues with Abraham escorting the angels who informed Sarah that she would bear a son off towards their next destination: Sodom and Gomorrah.    Once they have been sent on their way, God decides to reveal to Abraham the impending destruction of those cities, due the sins of their wicked inhabitants. Abraham responds by starting to argue with God. “Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would you still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked; so the righteous will be treated like the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:23-25).”
God agrees to spare the cities if fifty righteous people shall be found within them, but instead of quitting while he is ahead, Abraham them presses on, eventually negotiating God down to needing only ten righteous people between the two cities in order to spare them. Unfortunately there are only four righteous people between the two cities (Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family), but God sends two of the angels to escort them to safety, saving the righteous while destroying the wicked.
While Abraham was renowned for his honesty, generosity, and hospitality, this is the first recorded instance of him attempting to intercede with God on behalf of others. God’s earlier reprimand humbled Abraham, reminding him of his own flaws, but it did not break him and send him into a spiral of depression, believing himself to be completely and irredeemably flawed. Instead it helped Abraham to focus on the fact that he had both flaws and virtues, positive qualities as well negative ones. In Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham saw himself.    The entirety of his being should not be destroyed simply because he had some negative qualities, and so, too, should the righteous people within those two cities not suffer the same fate as the wicked ones who do deserve this destruction. Thus, God pointing out Abraham’s flaws to him spurred Abraham to advocate on their behalf.
The musaf service on the High Holidays starts in pretty much the same starkly different manner from other musaf services of the year that the main thrust of the morning service does, except that instead of his or her seat, the leader starts from the back of the sanctuary and approaches the podium while reciting one long prayer specially designed for the shaliach tzibur of the High Holiday musaf service. In this prayer, the Hineini (literally “here I am,” found on page 236), the leader humbly acknowledges that it is completely unreasonable for him or her to beseech God and expect to receive positive results as Abraham did, due to the many sins he or she has likely committed over the course of the year, but begs God not to let his or her own transgressions factor into the judgment of those whose prayer he or she is carrying: the congregation that has appointed him or her its messenger. And yet, paradoxically, by reciting the self-effacing Hineini, the leader is demonstrating that he or she has understood the message of humility that was sent earlier, and is now, like Abraham, ready to advocate on behalf of others.
The musaf service for Rosh Hashanah has three main components that are unique to Rosh Hashanah: the Malchuyot (Kingship) portion is about accepting God’s right, as Sovereign of the universe, to judge us according to our deeds, humbly accepting that our lives are in God’s hands. Next is the Zichronot (Remembrances) portion, where we plead with God to take everything into account when judging us. Not just our past deeds and our present mindset, but also the future potential for good that our virtues provide us with, by invoking instances in which our ancestors were judged favorably for these reasons, even though they, like us, were flawed.
The third and final unique section of the Rosh Hashanah musaf service is the Shofrot section, in which the focus is on the blowing of the eponymous shofar.    Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin describes the shofar as a pure, raw, cry from the heart, expressing a desire to be cleansed of bad influences, demonstrating to God that we desire to be better than we have been, but we rely on a merciful judgment from God to have the chance to do so.
On Rosh Hashanah, we, like Abraham, see Sodom and Gomorrah in ourselves. In the Malchuyot section we ask that God destroy our flaws by helping us to overcome them. In Zichronot we ask God to judge us favorably because of our righteous virtues. Then, in Shofrot, we express our sincerity to God with the primal sounds of the shofar.
We then owe it to God to spend the year proving that we are worthy of merciful judgment we are asking for.    We must not leave the lessons of Rosh Hashanah behind once the High Holidays are over.    The leaders of the morning and musaf services start leading the service from within the congregation because their messages can be delivered by anyone. Similarly, the messenger angels who helped teach Abraham and Sarah their lessons of humility are described in the Torah as “men” rather than angels because that is how they appeared to Abraham and Sarah. God’s messages can be delivered by anyone, anywhere. If we want to prove ourselves worthy of favorable judgment we are asking God to give us, we need to make sure we keep our ears open at all times.

Commentary for Nitzavim

5 Oct

One of the major themes of this week’s parshah is the interaction between God, individuals, and society. It lays out obligations that we as a society have to God, and explores how the actions of individuals towards each other affect society, how the actions of individuals towards society affect each other and vice versa, and how all of those interactions can affect society’s relationship with God.
As part of this message, we are told that the Torah is not too divine or spiritual or complicated for us to understand; a message that serves as both encouragement to individuals who wish to learn and as a warning to society that “we didn’t know any better” is not a valid excuse for tolerating rampant immorality. To help achieve both of these goals, the Great Assembly instituted the weekly system of public Torah reading that we still use today.
One way that the actions of an individual can affect society is through the proper- or improper- reading of the Torah. It is imperative not only for the words to be read correctly, but also with the correct cantillation, which serves as both emphasis and punctuation to help make the meaning of the words more clear. Even the pauses between the cantillation are important to get right, for the rare occasion that their omission changes the meaning of a verse.
The usual textbook example of the occasion on which the omitting the proper pause in the cantillation can drastically alter the meaning of a verse occurs in this week’s parshah. Deut. 29:19 tells of the punishment that will befall a brazen, arrogant sinner, concluding with the warning that “the LORD will erase his name from beneath the heavens.” While the convention of capitalizing pronouns that refer to God makes it easy for us to understand the meaning of the verse when it is both translated and then written out for us, verbal communication (such as Torah reading) and languages that do not have capital letters (such as Hebrew) lack this technology. As a result, without the proper cantillation and pauses, it is possible for the verse to be incorrectly understood as saying that it is God’s own name that God will remove from the earthly realm at the sight of one willing to unapologetically flaunt his or her continued wrongdoings before society.
The exacting requirements for the correct reading of the Torah for the community do not just prevent miscommunications and misinterpretations, but can also be used to teach deeper lessons. Taken on its own, the correct reading of this verse is a harsh warning to the brazen sinner that he or she will be severely punished, but when contrasted with the incorrect interpretation, it becomes a message to us all: although we may see people who brazenly flaunt their sins, this does not mean that God has retreated from the world because God does not flee in the face of human immorality. God has not abandoned us, and God has not forgotten them, either. If we take their current lack of punishment as permission to follow their example, we will share in their fate.