Category Archives: Holidays

Undoing the Past

Rosh Hashana is the first day of the ten days of repentance, but the repentance of Rosh Hashana is different than on the other days. There is no Viduy recited, no confessional prayer and no selichot. It is a day of Malchiyot, the acceptance of G-d’s kingship; we focus not on ourselves but on G-d. So, if there is no overt repentance on Rosh Hashana, how is it part of the ten days of repentance? What is the teshuva of Rosh Hashana?

Rav Eliyahu Lifschitz, in his “Selichot Mevu’eret,” questions the very nature of the mitzvah of teshuva. It is, indeed, a strange Mitzvah, for what does it really add to the Torah? It is a fascinating entry-level question to the Yamim Noraim:  I may want to eat a cheeseburger, but the Torah says I may not. The Torah says I have to observe Shabbat, so I must. If I breach the Torah’s norms, I have sinned, and must comply next time. So what then does teshuva accomplish?

He explains that the Torah’s mitzvot are focused on the future. There is always something to do or not to do. In fact, mitzvot are generally rooted in objects or actions that demand the appropriate response. But teshuva is less concerned with the future than it is with the present. Of course, we regret the squalid past and commit to a more virtuous future, but repentance is oriented in the present.

Said another way, if we sin and do not do teshuva, what have we really lost? We are still obligated not to sin again or to perform the proper positive commandment. So, just do it, or don’t do it! There is always another mitzvah to do and another sin to eschew. What, then, does teshuva add?

Teshuva presupposes that at present there is a new obligation on the sinner: to repent. The gavra (individual) now has the status of a sinner, and that status has to be uprooted. The fact that the sin is over and in the past only has meaning in terms of the future, but in the present, the status of sinner has to be removed.

If Mitzvot can only be done in the future, and Teshuva is a phenomenon of the present, what about the past? Is the past really past, and what happened in the past is irredeemable and unrectifiable? Should we just not cry over spilled milk? No.

The past, too, can be undone, which is important if only because the past remains an integral part of our personality. How can we change the past?

We cannot, but G-d can, and this is what is called kapara, atonement. Human beings live within limitations; there really is no time machine in which we can travel to the past and reverse bad decisions. Only G-d, who is infinite and beyond time and space, can do that. G-d can change the past, and that capacity alone strengthens our resolve to return to Him.

But man is only able to access that divine attribute by surrendering to Him, to anoint G-d our King in every facet of our lives. And this elicits G-d’s boundless compassion that enables us to continue in His service. An avaryan (literally, a sinner), someone once said, is a person who is too rooted in the avar, the past, obsessing over what was and thus paralyzing himself for the future. Those who think the past cannot be undone harm both their present and their future.

This, then, is the purpose of the Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, the acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship that is at the heart of Rosh Hashana and the Yamim Noraim. It is the only way to change the past and redeem the present so that we can be worthy of the glorious future. Mitzvot perfect the future, teshuva perfects the present, and kapara perfects the past. And the only prerequisite is to join in the coronation of G-d, and then we will be the beneficiaries of His blessings for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace, for us and all Israel.

On behalf of Karen and our entire family, I wish all of us a Ktiva vachatima tova!

 

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The Rishon Who Thwarted Arab Terror

      We can start with two trivia questions – trivia, but not trivial. What three word phrase in the hagada is the most frequently recited? That’s the relatively easy question. The more difficult one is this: what paragraph did Rav Soloveitchik say is the most important in the hagada? If you know the first, the second should come naturally. And it all goes to prove this amazing story, a true story entitled “how the responsum the Rashba (Rav Shlomo ibn Aderet, 1235-1310) of the eliminated the terrorists.”

     The Gemara (Pesachim 33a) states that one can only give terumah to a kohen if he is able to consume it immediately but not if it is something that he would have to burn. For example, “wheat that became chametz while it was still attached to the ground.” That means that if wheat is rained upon, the wheat becomes chamtetz even before it was harvested. But how can that be? All wheat receives rain; if not it does not grow!

     R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, native of Barcelona, asked this question (Rashba, Volume 7, Chapter 20) and he answered that this is only true if the wheat is fully ripened and doesn’t require any more nourishment. In that situation, it is as if it is already in a jug and will become chametz if rain falls on it. Indeed, this is the halacha, as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (OC 467:5) and the Mishna Berura (467:17) adds that “for this reason, the pious ensure that their matzot come from wheat that has been watched from the time of the harvest and that they are still a little moist,” just as the Rashba required.

     Practically, this rarely presents a problem because in Israel the rainy season ends long before the time for harvest. But in 2014, there were sudden and unexpected thunderstorms across the south of Israel right before Shavuot, and that endangered the whole crop. The Badatz had to invalidate most of the wheat fields because the rain had fallen on ripe wheat. They searched and researched, and the rabbinical court in Bnei Brak found that there had been no rain in Kibbutz Sufa, adjacent to the Gaza border, quickly negotiated with them, and harvested their entire wheat field in June 2014.

    Unbeknownst to anyone, Hamas terrorists had for the previous six months dug a tunnel from Gaza under the wheat field into Kibbutz Sufa. Their reconnaissance had revealed that it was perfect cover – a large field covered by high stalks of wheat. They planned a terrorist attack on Sufa for the end of June, 2014.

    I have seen the video. Almost 15 terrorists emerged from the opening to the tunnel, and scattered in two different directions. You can sense their surprise and confusion – they had anticipated a field that was covered with wheat. Instead, they found a field that was open, flat and exposed. They ran from the opening, and then they aborted the attack, and ran back to the opening, scurrying about frantically. They made it back to the opening and started climbing down – but not before they were greeted by one IDF missile. Six terrorists were killed, seven wounded and captured. The wounded related that they knew the field was not harvested until latesummer and they did not understand why the field was harvested that year in the early summer. It was perfect cover – but they had not planned on the responsum of the Rashba!

     This was not 3000 or 2000 years ago – but five years ago. This is the law of grain that is completely dry and no longer needs nourishment. Look it up – you have to harvest the grainbefore rain falls on it. And so they did, and a great salvation occurred. True story.

     The three word phrase that occurs most in the hagada iski l’olam chasdo, that G-d’s kindness is everlasting. And Rav Soloveitchik wrote that the most important paragraph in the hagada islefichach:” “therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, extol and exalt He who performed for us and for our forefathers all these miracles.” The whole hagada, the whole seder, and the entire Pesach are designed to bring us to the point that we are imbued with praise of G-d and gratitude for the kindnesses that He has done for us and our forefathers. Everything leads to praise and gratitude – and so it is in our lives as well.

     We don’t only rejoice over the miracles done to our forefathers; if we have eyes and ears, and a mind and a heart, we will see the miracles of today as well that G-d for a nation that is not always aware of it and does not always appreciate it – but should.

   We do – and so we welcome Pesach not only for the mitzvot, the wonderful spirit and the joys of family, but because we can utilize this moment to declare His name and proclaim His deeds to the nations, with the hope and prayer that we will again behold His redemptive hand.

      Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

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The Joy of Teshuva

(First published in the YU Lamdan)

Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?

Although repentance is a joyous experience in conception, sin or grappling with sin are not. That is why we omit tachanun on any happy occasion, for it doesn’t mention teshuvah at all but rather the wages of sin. “Merciful and Compassionate One, I sinned before you…Do not chastise me in Your anger…my couch melts because of my tears” (Cf. Tehillim, Chapter 6). There is not a word about repentance, only about the damage wrought by sin. Rav Kook wrote: (Orot Hateshuvah 14:7): “All sadness comes as a result of sin, and repentance illuminates the soul and transforms sadness into happiness.”

If happiness is the natural state of the being living in line with its essential nature, then sadness (meaning frustration, discontent, or unhappiness) can only beset a person because of too many actions, thoughts, or traits that are bad for the soul. When the light of repentance emerges, “the pipelines of pleasure and joy are opened.” To encapsulate this in one famous phrase (Orot Hateshuvah 15:6): “Repentance does not come to make one’s life bitter, but to make it sweeter, more pleasant, more true to itself.”

What is the source of this joy? Repentance is the act of renewal or re-creation. We become different people. We always love what is new, so changing one’s name, deeds, and even locale is all part of the joy of the soul in becoming a new creature. If we don’t actually change our names – and maybe we should! – we can feel born again by changing our deeds, habits, location, and routine and especially when it has us in a spiritual rut, celebrating complacency, mediocrity or worse.

For perfect repentance the soul has to maintain two contradictory forces: trepidation and anguish over sin, and confidence and joy over the good, for it is impossible that man should not find some good, even much good, in himself. But even the anguish is productive, a sign that man is healthy, that he knows something is wrong and needs rectification. That is a good thing.

Rav Kook (Ein Aya, Maaser Sheni) wrote that we always have to keep in mind the magnitude of our obligations to God – to do good, to be good and holy, and to perfect our character. But even though we know we are not perfect, and we are to act humbly and contritely before G-d,  “nonetheless these feelings of inferiority should not predominate so that it tramples on his serenity of soul, and robs him of his joy and happiness in life.”

That is the joy of repentance. It is not just the outcome that we are now “beloved, cherished, close to and a friend of God” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 7:6) but in the process itself. It requires that we not just to focus on sin but to contemplate what we have done well.

Perhaps the joy of teshuvah can be internalized only when we realize that repentance is not just a return to God but is really a return to our true selves, to our souls before they were tarnished, to our personalities before the world of falsehood started to contort them. At the heart of that repentance is the recognition that we have tremendous powers and capabilities.

Reb Tzadok even wrote (Tzidkat Hatzadik 154) that just like a person has to believe in God, so too he has to believe in himself, to feel that he matters to God and does not toil or live in vain. We have to believe in our spiritual personalities. Even though we might (might?) sin and become repugnant, we still have the potential to become exalted and escape the shackles of our limitations.

So, too, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz emphasized (Sichot Mussar, 26) that a person who believes in himself can uncover powers and potential that hitherto he did not think he possessed.

All these forces – of simchat hanefesh‘ the joy of repentance, the creation of the new personality and the ability to see the good in ourselves – coalesce on Yom Kippur, the day the second set of luchot were given to us and the day the Bet Hamikdash was consecrated (Masechet Taanit 26b). On Yom Kippur,  we were given all the tools through which we serve God, and every year we celebrate those personal and national tools, and polish them anew.

May we use them well, and in the repentance of joy bring about the personal and national redemption of all Israel.

A Time to Seek

(First published in CBY’s “Kehilatenu”)

Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Not for hamburger, fries and a Diet Coke or even a salad and mineral water. And not even thirsty for water, although that is closer to the point. “All who are thirsty should go to the water (Yeshayahu 55:1) on which our Sages expounded “water refers only to Torah” (Masechet Bava Kama 82a). We are a hungry and thirsty people, especially when Elul comes and the New Year is about to begin.

The Gemara (Masechet Shabbat 138b) teaches that there will come a time in the future when the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people, as the verse says (Amos 8:12): “Behold the days are coming, G-d says, and I will send a famine to the land. Not a famine for bread and not thirst for water but to hear the word of G-d. And people will wander from sea to sea and north to east to seek G-d’s word – and will not find it.” It sounds like a truly desperate state of affairs; people will not even know what is a divine thought or value or what is considered godly behavior. No scholar will be able to answer definitively questions of Halacha. Can that really happen?

That same Gemara concludes with the statement of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “Heaven forbid that the Torah should ever be forgotten from the people of Israel, as the Torah itself promises “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants” (Devarim 31:21). What then do the Sages mean when they said that ‘people will wander…to seek G-d’s word and not find it?’ It means that they will not find the practical Halacha and the theoretical teaching in one place.”

If so, doesn’t that also mean that the Torah will be forgotten? How and why does Rabbi Shimon disagree with his colleagues?

Rav Yaakov Shapiro, current Rosh Yeshiva of Mercaz Harav, quoted Rav Kook as saying that Rabbi Shimon is correct. It is inconceivable that the Torah will be forgotten from the Jewish people. That is for the simple reason that as long as there are people who “wander about…to seek G-d’s word” then by definition the Torah is not forgotten. We need to be seekers and searchers. That is the purpose of the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim. Indeed, the very word “Elul” is drawn from the Aramaic root for searching (see Targum, Bamidbar 13:2). We need to overcome our normal complacency, our sense that we have seen it all, heard it all, and know it all, and become hungry and thirsty – for the word of G-d.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe was told “carve for yourself” new tablets of the Law – for yourself. The essence of the second set of tablets, the ones that survived, is that they were produced by Moshe’s own hand. They resulted from an inner yearning that he had to come closer to G-d and heal the breach between G-d and the Jewish people. So too, the repentance of this season is always the result of inner arousal – of the sense that something is amiss and needs to be repaired in our relationship with G-d and even with our friends and loved ones. It is the season of seeking. We are all mevakshim.

Thus we say twice daily in Tehillim 27 there is “one thing I ask of G-d, that is what I seek (that I might dwell in the house of G-d).” And we say “I seek your presence, G-d.” I seek Your closeness and Your favor, I seek Your warmth and forgiveness, I seek new opportunities and new challenges, I seek to satisfy my hunger and to slake my thirst – for You.

And isn’t it true that when we sincerely seek G-d then that is when we are most likely to find ourselves – our real personalities and talents, our real commitment, and our real purpose in life? What a blessing to be afforded this opportunity year after year.

“’Seek G-d when He might be found’ – these are the ten days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippurim (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a).” May our quest begin and we find what we seek, and merit Hashem’s blessings for a year of life and good health, prosperity and peace, friendship and holiness, and complete redemption, for us and all Israel.

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Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. With G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.

The End of the “Three-Day Yom Tov”

It is official: the phrase “three-day Yom Tov” has been banned from these parts, never to be uttered again. The reason is simple. There is no such thing.

There can be a one day Yom Tov (Shavuot in Israel), a two day Yom Tov (Rosh Hashana everywhere or Shavuot in the exile), a seven day Yom Tov (Pesach in Israel), and eight day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in Israel or Pesach in the exile) and even a nine day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in the exile). But there cannot be a three day Yom Tov, even though many use the term to describe the recent celebration of Rosh Hashana followed by Shabbat and the upcoming (in the exile) celebrations of Succot and Shemini Atzeret on Thursday and Friday followed by Shabbat.

Years ago, we banned from use the Purim expression “sending Mishloach Manot.” Obviously, one cannot “send the sending of manot;” just send them and be done with it. What we send are “manot,” period.

So there is no “three day Yom Tov” but rather two days of Yom Tov followed by Shabbat. Lest you think I am overly persnickety (just overly; a little persnicketiness would do everyone some good), please note that the difference is more than semantics.

The expression “three day Yom Tov” conjures up thoughts of drudgery that doesn’t seem to end – cleaning, cooking, eating, cooking, eating, cleaning, and then more eating – with many hours of shul attendance sprinkled in to get us out of the dining room. Some dread three whole days without their electronic devices – no phone, no internet, no texting, and no news updates. That is actually a good way to break the Smartphone addiction that has left many people – especially young people – almost incapable of carrying on a conversation with a live human being right next to them, a human being with whom the interlocutor has to make eye contact and enunciate words in full sentences, wait for a response and answer again.

Nonetheless, since there cannot be a “three day Yom Tov,” what should we call the celebrations of two-day holidays followed by Shabbat?

Rav Eliezer Melamed hinted at the answer which, if understood properly, can revolutionize our lives:

shelosha yamim shel kedusha,” or in our parlance, “three days of holiness,” or even just “three holy days.” (Note: not three holidays; it doesn’t sound the same nor convey the same meaning.) Three Holy Days. Say it again: “Three Holy Days.” It has a nice ring to it. Rolls off the tongue.

The notion of “Three Holy Days” is a far cry from the implications of the “three day…(banned phrase).” In the first instance, “Three Holy Days” reminds us that these days are not identical in their obligations and observances but are all defined by varying degrees of holiness.  Yom Tov and Shabbat are not the same and the distinctions should be noted. Secondly, “Three Holy Days” communicates a love of mitzvot and a desire to rejoice in our service of G-d, as if the purpose of these days is not just to eat and eat (and cook, serve and clean) but to internalize the profound ideas of Torah and Jewish nationhood that have sustained us for thirty-seven centuries. A “three day Yom Tov” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) is feared, a source of anxiety and trepidation, but “Three Holy Days” should be anticipated by all serious Jews with excitement and merriment. Who would not want to be immersed in Torah, Mitzvot and G-d’s presence for three full days, if not more? Who would eschew three consecutive days doing nothing but indulging our souls? Even the meals of the “Three Holy Days” have tremendous spiritual significance.

“Three Holy Days” marks this period of time, and which we will enjoy again this coming Shavuot, as opportunities to saturate our souls with the experiences that develop them and therefore our entire lives. There is little that we do during the working days of the week that has as considerable an influence on our souls as does our proper observance and celebration of the “Three Holy Days.” Our children and grandchildren will be shaped and inspired by what they see, hear, feel and experience far more than anything that happens outside this time.

If they perceive that the “Three Holy Days” are a burden, and involve chores and preparations that weigh down and even dispirit the adults in their lives – if, indeed, they are educated with the banned expression “Three Day-you-know-what” – then they will absorb this lesson quite well and chafe under the loss of work time and regret the hours they could have otherwise spent sharing the inanities of their daily lives on social media.

But if they learn the lofty phrase “Three Holy Days” they will understand the great blessings that we enjoy, of finding our true happiness in Mitzvot and divine service, and they will seek to surround themselves with holiness, holy things and holy moments. There is no better time for this than Succot, during which we enter into a mitzvah with our entire bodies and bask in the divine presence.

So long live the “Three Holy Days” – and Chag Sameach to all!

 

 

The Hidden Moon

A well known Torah teacher in Israel, Rav Eliezer Kashtiel, asks a familiar question. We generally celebrate our holidays at the full moon, in the middle of the month. Succot, Pesach, and Purim are all full moon holidays. Not only is Rosh Hashana different, but we highlight that difference: “Sound the shofar in the concealment of our festival day.” Which festival occurs when the moon is concealed? That would be Rosh Hashana (Masechet Rosh Hashana 34a). But why must the festival coincide with the moon hidden from sight? And why is our attention called to it?

There is a famous dispute between the Gaon of Vilna and the holy ARI on a sensitive question: is it permissible to cry on Rosh Hashana? The Gaon ruled that one is not allowed to cry, for at the beginning of the second Temple era, Nechemia admonished the people who had come to the Temple for the first time on Rosh Hashana to “go home, eat, drink, for this day is holy to G-d, and don’t be sad, for delight in G-d is your strength” (Nechemia 8:10). Thus, the GRA said, the prohibition against sadness precludes crying.

The ARI disagreed, as recorded by R. Chaim Vital and the Ba’er Heiteiv (Orach Chaim 584:3). The ARI would cry on Rosh Hashana and even said that whoever didn’t cry, it is a sign that his soul is not healthy. That’s the paradox of Rosh Hashana: on the one hand, it’s a happy and joyous day; while on the other hand, it’s a day of solemnity and judgment. Which is primary?

There are several answers that synchronize the opinions of the GRA and the ARI, but here is one. There are different types of crying. There are tears of sadness and there are tears of joy. Sometimes they are commingled, and sometimes they are distinct. And we all know the difference. Rosh Hashana is the only holiday that is celebrated at the New Moon, the beginning of the month, because, like the new moon every month, it symbolizes a fresh start, a rebirth. On Rosh Hashana, we are all children again. We are reborn. We still hear the cantor of our youth that shapes the way we absorb and understand the davening throughout our lives. We still see the sights and inhale the aromas of the homes in which we were raised. We are children again, full of hope and excitement.

What is the sound of the shofar? The whole year we talk to G-d, with words. On Rosh Hashana, we employ the wordless sounds of the shofar, the cry of the infant who can’t say anything or do anything. He just cries. It’s not a cry of sadness or of pain; it’s not the cry of longing for or regret for the past; that will come. It is the cry of the child who yearns for mother and father, for the security and comfort of home; it is our cry to our Father in Heaven that we have returned after being abroad for too long. Please let us in. We cry in joy over the future – like at all beginnings, births and weddings – not over the past. We cry over the journey that took us to distant places, but now we have come home.

There is no moon. The past is the past. We are born again. We just need to be delivered into the new world of the New Year.

The Torah tells us that the two great women, midwives, who ushered in the redemption from Egypt and the founding of our nation, were named Shifra and Pu’ah. In the understanding of our Sages, these noble women were Yocheved and Miriam, respectively the mother and sister of Moshe. So why were they called Shifra and Pu’ah? The Gemara (Sota 11b) says that one was called Shifra because her role was to straighten out (meshaperet) the limbs of the newborn, and the other was called Pu’ah because she cried out (po’ah) to the child to bring her forth into the world.

Shifra and Pu’ah. Those names should ring a phonetic bell in our minds. Pu’ah – crying, cooing. The hundred sounds of the shofar that we blow correspond to the hundred cries (pe’ayot) of Sisera’s mother. And Pu’ah’s mother was Shifra, a word like the shofar itself. The Baal Hatanya wrote that the sounds of the shofar accompany our rebirth. It calls out to us plaintively and seeks our improvement; it urges us to straighten ourselves out. It asks us to renew ourselves, that we cry not tears of sadness – “do not be sad  because the delight in G-d is our strength” –  but tears of joy (even if that too recollects what is missing), tears of hope and anticipation, tears of the newborn, of a reborn soul.

The Slonimer quotes the Toldot Yaakov Yosef who reinterpreted the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that discusses the three books that are open on Rosh Hashana – the books of the righteous, the wicked and the intermediates. The books are open, but we get to inscribe ourselves. We get to choose the book in which we want to be written. What are our true aspirations? Those who crown G-d as King over themselves – every limb, every deed, and every thought – have chosen the book of life. Those who cannot make that commitment are choosing a different book.

If the moon is concealed on Rosh Hashana, it is only to remind us that a new beginning awaits us, if only we want it, if only we are ready for it. May we embark on that new beginning wisely and choose the book of life thoughtfully, and may G-d show us favor and seal us in that book for a year of meaningful life and good health, of prosperity and happiness, and grace our people with renewal as well – to an end to fear and trepidation, and to the beginning of complete redemption.

Shana Tova to all!