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The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is a central aspect of Judaism, if not all religious beliefs. It is an invocation or act that deliberately seeks out and interfaces with the divine.

Although prayer does appear obliquely or sporadically in the Torah, it is not the predominant mode of worship in the Torah or the ancient world the Torah appeared in, an era where animal sacrifice was a near cultural universal. Our sages went out of their way to teach that prayer doesn’t just appear in the Torah; prayer stands in as a direct replacement or substitute for the lapsed sacrifices of long ago.

Our prayers are replete with requests to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. However, authorities are divided on whether the future we yearn for heralds a restoration or replacement of animal sacrifice. While that remains speculative until we find out, it is probably fair to say that it is hard for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around animal sacrifice.

Today’s near cultural universal is that animal sacrifice is alien and weird, perhaps even disgusting and nasty. Most people don’t want to watch an animal get slaughtered; any arcane mysticism is hard to imagine over the blood and gore.

That leaves prayer in a bit of a void; prayer is a stand-in or substitute for animal sacrifice, and yet an animal sacrifice is hard to relate to in almost every conceivable way, so far removed as it is from our primary experience. Moreover, the Torah has long sections devoted to the different categories and kinds of sacrifice and their details and nuances; sacrifice is clearly the primary mode of worship in the Torah’s conception, so prayer seems second-rate.

Either way, prayer is hard to understand. If prayer and sacrifice aren’t connected, why bother with something the Torah doesn’t validate as having much significance? And if prayer is connected to sacrifice, what element of sacrifice do we even relate to?

The Torah opens the section on sacrifices by outlining a scenario where someone wants to bring an offering:

‘אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַהֹ – When one of you presents an offering for God… (1:2)

Although not readily obvious in translation, the Torah utilizes highly unusual language here. Rather than present the sensible scenario where one of you wants to bring an offering, it literally translates to when someone offers an offering of you, which is to say, literally of yourselves – אָדָם מִכֶּם כִּי־יַקְרִיב / אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

The Baal HaTanya notes that this reading suggests that at the earliest juncture, the Torah already indicates that as much it’s going to talk about animal offerings, it’s not about the animal at all; it’s about the part of yourself you’re willing to offer, and prayer would operate in much the same way – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the conventional notion of sacrifice isn’t really reflected in the Hebrew term – קרְבָּן. We think of sacrifice as giving something up when the Hebrew word actually means something more like drawing closer – קרב. You interact with the divine not with what you give up but by drawing close with what you have; in offering the material to God, you transform the material into the sacred.

God doesn’t need our stuff and can’t receive it in any tangible way; the Malbim teaches that all a person can ever offer is themselves, which mirrors precisely what the Torah calls for here – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם. The Sfas Emes explains that the notion articulated here is that sacrifice and prayer are about aligning ourselves and resources to God’s broader plan; prayer isn’t secondary to sacrifice; it is the same.

While the form of seeking out the divine may have changed over time depending on the zeitgeist, the substance has remained constant. At the root of all mysticism is a desire to connect with the divine transcendence, and our sages have long identified the inner world of the heart as the battlefield of spirituality – עבודה שבלב. So we can read the Yom Kippur atonement ritual that seems odd to modern sensibilities, yet it maintains relevance to our prayers because the substance transcends the form of the performative aspect; that God forgives humans who want to make amends, goats and string or not.

It’s not the form of how it appears so much as it’s about the substance of how it is – אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.

As Moshe said to his audience, our Creator is always close, quite different from other gods they might have heard of who can only be invoked with specific rituals – כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱלֹקים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה’ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּכל־קרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.

The Izhbitzer suggests that our subconscious hearts and minds hope and pray all the time. When you whisper “Please, God,” hope for the best, or wish that things turn out okay, those unspoken but very real thoughts are prayers that bring tangible wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, from which things can and will eventually grow – קָרוֹב ה’ לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.

As the Kotzker said, where can we find God? Wherever we let Him in.

Sacrifice, like prayer, was always about the inner world of the spirit, about opening your heart and yourself to the universe.

And prayer, like sacrifice, can’t change God; but it can change you.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices is prayer.

Through prayer, we commune with the Creator, affirming our connection, dependency, and gratitude to the Source of all life.

The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious at all what the postulate of prayer working would even look like! 

What we do know is that at all times and all places throughout our history, the Jewish People have always turned to God in prayer for health, success, and salvation. It is almost universally understood that prayer plays a prominent role among the efforts and energy we must expend to get the outcomes we want – as well as the ones we don’t. 

The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted gave the desperate Jewish People safe passage, while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם  נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and luggage. They have no boats and cannot swim. There is an army approaching on the horizon, and they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so obviously, they cry out to God for help! Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that what we’ve always done?

Moreover, the Gemara imagines that Heaven has gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are evaluated and then admitted or refused based on timing and circumstance. The Neila service on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to create a sense of urgency – we need to squeeze a final prayer in because the doors are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.

The Jewish People were desperate, and they cried out for help. Why would God get annoyed?

The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that doesn’t close is no gate at all!

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate because some tears are turned away; the gate is shut to crocodile tears, sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.

In the story of Pinchas, Balak and Bilam successfully schemed to hurt the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; and most of the young men found it impossible to resist. The camp succumbed, sparking a devastating plague.

But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in all the Jews; some of them resisted the obvious temptation, and, unsure what to do, they went to the holiest man, their leader Moshe, at the most sacred spot they knew, the Mishkan, to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

These people of moral fiber cried and prayed for help, but that didn’t save the day.

R’ Moshe Sherer highlights how the Torah explicitly credits Pinchas’s assassination of the provocateurs for stopping the plague, and not anyone’s prayers – וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה / הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי.

When something is wrong and we respond only with thoughts and prayers, they are crocodile tears, lip service, pearl-clutching, and window dressing. The pain may be real, but prayers can’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.

There may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input. Still, the Torah seems to dismiss the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.

At the Red Sea, God snaps at Moshe to tell the people to get a move on. The Midrash further expands that God told Moshe that it was not the appropriate time for lengthy prayer; danger was at hand, and it was time to act!

Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the prayer at the sea because they seized their ancestral craft – תָּפְשׂוּ אֻמָּנוּת אֲבוֹתָם. The Maharal explains that prayer isn’t craftsmanship, like carpentry or plumbing. Prayer is supposed to be heartfelt and soulful! But they cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors; a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness, that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal prayer, an immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do! 

Only they were wrong to think that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be wrong for thinking prayer could work in a vacuum.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, they should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed. 

In sharp contrast, our ancestor Yakov prepared to reunite with Esau years after wronging him and meticulously prepared for their meeting. He prepared for peace by sending waves of lavish gifts to Esau; prepared for battle and victory, arming his young family and training them; prepared for defeat and death, dividing his family in two, in the hope that the second camp might escape without Esau ever knowing they existed; and then finally, he prays that God be with him and that his family should survive.

As R’ Noach Weinberg highlights, Yakov prepares for peace, victory, and death; which is to say that he did no less than everything possible to prepare for all eventualities before prayer, even though God had already promised to be with him and that his children would inherit the land and his legacy. 

Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.

God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea. It wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t, because they had given up, and were consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom the Midrash heralds for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen, because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – crucially, a hope that drove him to act.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.

By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed to them that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck, without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation, and we can almost hear the reverberation of an answer to the rhetorical question of “What do you expect Me to do?!” with God begging for something to work with. Get in the water, dummy!

We should not judge them too harshly for being afraid. The fight, flight, or freeze response is hardcoded into our DNA and predates human consciousness; people tend to freeze when their families are about to get massacred.

But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go answered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer – “What do you expect Me to do, exactly?” 

If we’re crying crocodile tears, we need to confront the reality that our prayers are mediocre, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t seem to be working.

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t go anywhere if you don’t give your partner attention. You won’t succeed if you don’t try. If you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed – the world has never worked that way. You absolutely have to try, and even then, you have to try very hard indeed.

We need to animate our lives with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessing, but humans must build the vessels that will contain those blessings.

There’s plenty to be scared of; the uncertain path that lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with decisive action, taking bold steps that brighten the way forward. And with each step along the way, pray to meet with good fortune and success.

If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, it’s worth pausing being a soldier for a moment to think like a general and strategize. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate that. Bluntly ask yourself what you could be doing better to make it happen.

Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of effort and dedication toward your dreams. Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for action.

You must believe in a positive outcome enough to invest real effort into making it a reality.

Transcending Time

3 minute read
Straightforward

From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. If you give it a moment’s thought, using honey seems odd. Honey is produced by bees, which are not kosher and have a painful sting.

Why not use cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva is supernatural, in that it preexists the universe so that whatever nature is, Teshuva transcends.

The simplified idea belying Creation is that it is a sandbox for humans to make choices and thrive. Choices present tests, and the nature of a test is that it is pass or fail. As much as Hashem can want us to pass our tests, the fact remains that tests can and will be failed. This fact alone requires the existence of Teshuva – failure is not the end; a person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.

The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties about how nature works. One of these laws is the law of entropy, which is that natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Entropy is a byproduct of a finite Creation, whereas Teshuva is infinite because it predates time and space. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally assured from the outset.

It’s’s like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.

Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – it could never grow, which is why Teshuva necessarily predates existence. With Teshuva, we can change and become, and life is vibrant and alive.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. When motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, they can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different to what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.

R’ Meir Shapiro explains that this is why specifically honey, not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Honey is kosher, despite being a product of non-kosher origins, and maybe you get stung. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Teshuvah? You made mistakes that weren’t so kosher, and maybe they stung a little; but you learn and grow from them all the same – something kosher from something that’s not.

All this is to say what R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.

How The Tables Turn

2 minute read
Straightforward

After a turbulent relationship with his siblings that culminated in his abduction and exile, Yosef climbed his way from the gutter to Egyptian aristocracy.

Years later, his brothers came to Egypt to avoid a famine back home, and Yosef entrapped them in a drawn-out ruse.

Instead of identifying himself, he role-played as a meticulous bureaucrat. Noticing that Binyamin was absent, he apprehended and jailed Shimon until they returned with Binyamin, and then had his personal effects planted on Binyamin to make him look like a thief.

The story is a classic, albeit protracted, and theatrical. Why did Yosef act so strangely?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch perceptively notes that Yosef’s goal must have always been to bring his family back together because if he’d wanted to forget his family, then when his brothers came to Egypt, he could have just let them be. They’d return to Israel none the wiser!

But to reunite the family, Yosef had several major obstacles to overcome. If he ever went home or wrote back to reforge the connection, it would not bring the family together; it would irreparably tear it apart. By exposing to Yakov the murderous cover-up and human trafficking perpetrated by his brothers, Yakov might regain a long lost son, but he’d undoubtedly lose the rest.

The only way to make it right would be for things to be different. The brothers would need to see that Yosef had changed, and Yosef would need to know that they had changed, and he has cause for concern.

Where was Binyamin? Had the same thing happened to Rachel’s last son?

Judah, who had once instigated Yosef’s abduction, would now take responsibility and endanger himself to protect Binyamin. Coupled with their admission of guilt and repentance – מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה־נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק / אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל־אָחִינוּ – they had accomplished something remarkable – our very first encounter with teshuva in Jewish history.

Seeing how Yehuda courageously took responsibility for his family and stood up to take the blame, Yosef knew that they were not the reckless and impulsive young men they had been all those years ago. Seeing that they had grown, he revealed himself to them.

Once, they had feared Yosef’s ambition, believing he wanted them to serve him. Now Yosef had power over them; he could show that he didn’t want to take anything from them; he wanted to help them!

With all the theatrics, the brothers could learn more about each other than they ever could have with words, and it was the one way to tease out the insights that could bring their family together once more.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the stories of Bereishis are about families that could not learn to live together – it is one acrimonious falling out after another. But now there is a new paradigm – teshuva and forgiveness. Forgiveness brings Yakov’s fragmented family back together and forms the foundation of the Jewish people.

Faith in a Better Tomorrow

< 1 minute
Straightforward

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.

Not Yet Lost

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.

How does Teshuva Work?

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of our core beliefs is in our ability to repent and make amends – teshuva – both on a personal and a national level.

The majority of Jewish people are only loosely affiliated and are not well versed in our beliefs and traditions. It’s certainly not their fault, and they are oblivious to the notion they might be doing something wrong.

For them and for us, how do we fix something we don’t know is broken?

The beautiful thing is, we don’t always need to know, and we don’t have to do it alone:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

God promises a gift of compassion, that wherever we find ourselves, however far we might have fallen, He will find us and bring us back.

The popular aphorism has it that home is the place that when you go there, they have to let you in. Teshuva is the return to a religious home – even if you’ve never been there before. R’ Jonathan Sacks likens it to the waves of diaspora immigrants who escaped to Israel. When Europeans, Yemenites, Moroccans, Russians, and Ethiopians stepped off boats and planes into a land they’d never seen before, they still knew they were home – וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה.

The Shem mi’Shmuel explains that God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. A person who sinned their entire life can still repent on his deathbed – כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

As Rabbi Nachman of Breslev put it: if you believe you can break; believe you can fix. Just a few moments of real introspection go a long way. We just have to take a step, because the perfect is the enemy of the good.

And if God never gives up on us, it would be perverse to judge ourselves negatively according to some higher standard!

Yonah: Rejecting Justice For Mercy

2 minute read
Straightforward

On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.

Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later,  Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.

What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of teshuva. Pagan sailors could do teshuva, and even  Israel’s enemies could – the people of Nineveh.

When the input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity avert an evil decree. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.

God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.

The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.

Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.

Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then spoke to Yonah, and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:

אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ:  שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)

It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. We cannot ask for forgiveness for ourselves, yet deny it to others.

With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.

It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.

Hold On Hope

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most moving parts of the Yamim Noraim liturgy is u’Nesaneh Tokef.

It starts by setting the courtroom drama – כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – and tells us the the stakes are high – בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת.

Yet the conclusion of the prayer is entirely incongruent with the beginning. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil of the decree!

We believe there is hope and that nothing is set in stone.

Are we judged on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or can we change it?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not exhaustively binding because we simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate.

We cling on to the hope, that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies.

There is a very good reason we read the story of Jonah and Nineveh on Yom Kippur – Tanach is full of ominous prophecies that were averted when people decided to change.

More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves, and in our power to change.

Think Of The Children

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Straightforward

There core components to Teshuva are remorse and making amends. A prerequisite to these is taking ownership of our actions.

Before Moshe died, he warned the Jewish People not to deny or avoid their mistakes:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His – it is His children’s shortcoming; a crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor teaches that our actions shape our realities: anger creates fear and withdrawal, greed alienates partners, gossip erodes trust, and laziness hinders results.

Sometimes making amends is as easy as apologizing, but not always. For example, years of anger and abuse cannot be undone by suddenly turning soft and gentle; we might genuinely want to change, but the resentment caused by years of negativity will linger for quite some time, and we are responsible – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם.

How can we mitigate that?

R’ Ahron Belzer remarked that we should allow those our nearest and dearest to see more of our inner lives. It can only be a good thing for them to know that we too are flawed and just trying our best.

It can only be a good thing for our families to know about our good deeds and community work, most especially young children, who learn from example:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – The hidden things are Hashem’s; the revealed things are for our children and us for eternity. (29:28)

Those close to us see more than we think. So if you are committed to improving and making amends,  put it on display, so your loved ones can learn and participate – וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם.

When it’s authentic, they should only be supportive and encouraging, and your example will have a ripple effect.

Fool Me Twice..?

< 1 minute
Straightforward

During Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Selichos prayers, we refer to Hashem as old and kind -ותיק ועושה חסד.

While we readily understand the benefits of kindness, it’s an odd thing to call someone “old” and mean in a good way. How does being “old” modify God’s kindness?

Imagine speeding your car down the road and getting pulled over by the police.

Maybe you could talk your way out of it by saying you had a family emergency, and if the police officer is in a good mood, he’ll let you off with a warning.

But what if the very next day, the same police officer pulls you over in the same place for the same offense, and you then give the exact same excuse?

Every year, we make the same promises and the same excuses.

Yet Hashem never tires of us, and that’s the quality we admire here.

That the same old judge from yesterday and a year ago can still bear to listen kindly.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

During the Jewish People’s time in the desert, God gave a variety of commands.

We expect God to give commands, it comes with the territory, that’s what God does, it makes sense. They’d only just left Egypt and stood at Sinai; there was a new religion with new procedures and protocols to implement. And after all, there’s no way to know what God wants unless God says so!

What God says, we expect the audience to do, which the Torah dutifully records – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן. 

But what we might not expect is that the Torah reports with meticulous regularity, each and every time, not just that people obey, but that people carry out their task as per God’s command – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. The Torah uses this phrase tens, if not hundreds of times!

If you think about it, apart from the repetitiveness, it’s almost entirely redundant. It’s not at all obvious what doing something per God’s command adds, because, in almost every example, there is literally no other conceivable way to do the thing.

When God says to light the Menora, there is only one way to light a Menora. When God says to take a census of how many people there are, the only way to fulfill the command is to count people. When God says to bring a Korban Pesach, or how to do the Yom Kippur service, or any of the Mishkan-related workflows, or to go to war with Midian, or to execute somebody, there isn’t any other way to do any of those things! And yet each time, the Torah doesn’t say people followed their instructions; it says that the people followed their instructions faithfully as per God’s command – ‘וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. 

Each time people follow instructions, why does the Torah add that they followed the instructions per God’s command?

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us that they did it; it’s telling us how they did it.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that even when there truly is only one way to do something, there is still a right and wrong way. When the Torah adds that people followed instructions faithfully – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה – it’s not saying that they did just like they were told; it means that people follow instructions just like when they were told, capturing the snapshot of sentiment or feeling of a particular moment.

When you do anything, even if there’s no other way, you can still do it with energy, focus, and joy; or not – a right way and a wrong way, even when there’s only one way. 

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

Rashi quotes the Sifri that Ahron lit the Menora every day, precisely the way Moshe told him for the rest of his life, and never changed or deviated in any way – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה; the Sifri suggests that our everyday approach to Torah should similarly be with freshness and excitement – וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notes that as much as the comment is about Ahron not changing how he performed his duties, it’s equally a comment about how his duties didn’t change him. Some people let privilege and honor get to their heads – but not Ahron.

The Sfas Emes notes that lighting the Menora wasn’t a particularly prestigious ceremony in that any Kohen could kindle the lights. Still, Ahron took it seriously enough that he insisted on doing it himself every day for the rest of his life – every day, he did it like the moment he received the command.

The Ishbitza notes that the highest praise for Ahron is that he retained that initial desire, that things never got stale or boring for him. He kept challenging himself to find something new and exciting, so he lit the Menora his last time with the same enthusiasm as the first.

The Shem mi’Shmuel notes that the word for training, which means practice repetitions, is cognate to the word for inauguration, the first time you do something – חינוך / חנוכה. This suggests that training is not simply a repeat of past performance but the repetition of newness, with each repetition inviting an opportunity to introduce a fresh aspect or dimension.

Attitude and mentality are everything; the mental and emotional components heavily influence the substance of any interaction. Prayer and sacrifice require proper intent to have any substance to them; there is a vast difference between giving someone a hand because you care and giving someone a hand out of pity.

A Torah scroll is quite clearly and obviously a religious article, and yet it has no inherent sanctity from its perfect script and spelling. A Torah scroll is kosher and sacred exclusively if they were written with the express intent of imbuing the words and scroll with sanctity; which is to say that its utility and value as a holy object are solely determined by the mentality of the scribe.

The Mishkan had plenty of unique artifacts like the Menora, but it had some pretty ordinary implements that everyone owns; a shirt, a hat, a cup, and a spoon. What designated these as sacred and distinct is the intention with which they were crafted.

This is a universal truth in all walks of life, from Judaism to art to cooking. A great cook will say their secret ingredient is love; a great artist or sage will say their secret technique is heart and soul. 

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Mastery is typically boring. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is probably less special than your first.

It’s normal.

The more we experience something, the more our enthusiasm and attention typically wane. Predictability and comfort put an end to fresh euphoria; when we know what to expect, our excitement wears off, and boredom sets in. That’s why we need to keep things fresh if we’re focused on a long-term project or goal; cruise control is a killer.

It’s something often seen with young athletes or scholars who lose their way – they think they’ve made it and stop putting in the work that would take them to the elite tier. The seasoned pros always comment on how essential it is for youngsters to maintain their concentration and focus to stay on track; to be fully present in each moment and devote their full and undivided attention so things don’t get boring.

In all walks of life, the highest form of mastery is in valuing each repetition and finding the novelty and excitement in it.

It’s not redundant for the Torah to say each time that people did the right thing in the right way for the right reason. It is ubiquitous because it reflects a truism of life, a constant reminder that is universally true.

The way you do things matters.

The Eternal Flame

3 minute read
Straightforward

The ancients understood that water is the source of life, that rain and water are life-giving, and that water symbolizes cleansing, regeneration, renewal, fertility, birth, creation, and new life.

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people; unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from the Nile and beneath feet, Israel is a land where people must look up to the heavens for rain.

Given rain’s prominent role in an agricultural economy, it follows that rain features in our daily prayers; but there was one time of year when the rain had a unique prayer.

The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash once a year on Yom Kippur and perform the ritual service and say one single prayer – the only prayer ever said at Judaism’s holiest site – about rain.

But where we might expect the foremost religious leader and representative of an entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place, we find that instead, the prayer simply asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet on their way.

Given the central importance of rain, why is that the most important thing to say?

There is an interesting directive in the laws of sacrifices about a fire that had to burn in all weather conditions, even in the rain:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn an eternal flame on the altar, it can never burn out… (6:6)

On its face, this is a simple instruction to the attending Kohanim on duty to regularly stoke and fuel the flame.

There was nothing magical about it; it could not and did not burn on its own. It required a complex and dedicated logistical operation with constant maintenance and monitoring with round-the-clock shifts year-round, rain or shine, snow or wind.

Pirkei Avos suggests that their efforts were met with divine assistance; when it rained, the rain would not quench the fire, which is to say that our sages specifically understood the divine assistance to take the form of rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain at all over the fire. The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions; God would make sure their efforts were successful.

This strongly implies that no rain here, there, or anywhere is not a viable solution.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this illustrates that the heat and warmth of the special moments of life are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind. It wasn’t an eternal flame so much as a perpetual flame – אֵשׁ תָּמִיד.

This eternal flame, fueled as it was by raw human willpower, was the source of fires in all the year-round services, from the Menorah to the incense, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur service when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain. The eternal flame wasn’t just something that lies in the external world; it came from within. Perhaps every person is a miniature eternal flame; you must continually stoke the fire at whatever pace allows you to keep at it for decades without burning out.

Our sages understood the true miracle of the eternal flame; determined willpower and enduring efforts blessed with success. The Yom Kippur prayer affirms our worldview; we reject the immaturity of the fair-weather traveler, who does not accept that it will rain. We live in a world where there is rain, a world where it must rain, and people are going to have to be a little wet and uncomfortable.

You must not deny the crucial role consistency, perseverance, and perspiration play in life. Like the eternal flame, the miracle only happens after you’ve exhausted your efforts.

As R’ Chaim Volozhin teaches, while we can’t choose our circumstances, we can control our direction and velocity – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר.

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that it is a human’s duty to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of their efforts – השתדלות – because the aggregate of all outcomes is contingent on our efforts.

For the blessing to have a place to land, you need to do all you possibly can; ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

All you can do is your best; you must simply hope for the rest.