Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sukkot (Months)

For more teachings on Sukkot, see my blog:

It often seems to me that Sukkot is a kind of intellectual step-child among the festivals. There are not the great Shabbat Hagadol or Shabbat Shuvah lectures which help people to prepare, respectively, for the festivals of Pesah or for the Days of Awe; nor are there the talks and classes that make Shavuot into one long learning feast, with Tikkunim on nearly every street corner and under every leafy tree. Even though Sukkot is theoretically subject to the rule that “thirty days before the holiday one asks about and expounds the laws of the festival,” in practice until after Yom Kippur people are pretty much engrossed in thoughts relating to that day, while during the four intervening days they are far too busy building sukkot and buying lulav and Etrog —not to mention the shopping and cooking and baking and what not that precede every holiday—to stop so as to study and read and learn about the spiritual meaning of the holiday.

As this year [written in 2006]those engaged in study of the Daf Yomi (the daily page of Talmud) began studying Masekhet Sukkah just about a month ago, and have to date completed the first two chapters of this tractate, those dealing with the sukkah per se. Hence, it seems an ideal time to concentrate on this colorful and joyful, but intellectually neglected, holiday, in a kind of hadran or synthetic summary of those two chapters (my apologies for the belated nature of this study). I set myself a simple question: What is a sukkah? Specifically, what is the meaning of all the varied cases, including quite a few rather bizarre and improbable ones, that the first two chapters examine? To be more precise: is it possible, on the basis of the numerous detailed halakhot in these chapters to inductively construct an image of the ideal sukkah, and to extrapolate from it some sort of underlying theological-philosophical concepts?

But we shall begin with the etymology of the name sukkah. The word is derived from the root סכך (skk), the hard kaf in the middle letter deriving from the dagesh forte used to indicate the doubling of the letter khaf—the same root as used for the word sekhakh, the thatching, made of branches and other vegetation, used to cover the sukkah. The root itself has two interrelated meanings: to protect, cover, hover over, like the wings of the cherubim in the Temple that protected the ark of the covenant (Exod 25:20); or in contrary mood, as in Lamentations 3:44, where God covers Himself (סכתה בענן לך; sakota be-anan lakh) with a cloud “lest prayer should pass through” (itself a strange concept). The second meaning is: to weave or thatch together, or a covering made of woven or thatch-work—like the sekakh used to cover the sukkah. The loom on which threads are woven together is called a masekehet; by extension, so is a densely-constructed book or tractate, the written or cultural counterpart of a thickly-woven cloth (Hence, one could argue that the title Masekhet Sukkah is strictly speaking a kind of tautology.)

Another root belonging to the same semantic field is the root חפף (hff), also meaning to hover over or protect, from which is derived the word huppah, marriage canopy. I first became aware of this when I saw a custom-made huppah in the home of neighbors, made for the weddings of their children, embroidered with the verse כי על כל כבוד חופה, “and over all the glory shall hang a canopy,” from Isaiah 4:5—the only appearance of this word in the Bible. There, it appears as part of an eschatological vision, and immediately precedes a verse that speaks of the sukkah as protecting by day from intense heat, and as a hiding place from water and rain.

Halakhically, the sukkah is defined by two main parameters: the walls or defanot, and the thatching, or skhakh, which function as its roof or covering. The walls serve to define or delimit the actual space of the sukkah. There must be at least three walls, with no particular requirement as to the material; moreover, the third wall may be only partial, provided it is adjacent to one of the other walls, and is seen as a full wall using the principle of lavud—i.e., drawing an imaginary line to “complete” the missing section. Given that the walls need not fully enclose the space, and provide neither privacy nor safety from intruders or passers-by, one must conclude that their main function is to define or delimit a certain space in a formal sense. It also provides the framework for placing the skhakh, whose location is defined in relation to the walls: it cannot be too far away, either vertically or laterally, from the defanot. In addition, the walls must be arranged in such a way as to leave an aperture in which to place the skhakh: it cannot be a lean-to against a wall, nor can it be like a typee, which comes to a point without any space for skhakh.

The second component of the sukkah, the skhakh or thatch-work roof, is the defining feature of the sukkah, as its very name implies. To sit in the sukkah means to dwell in the shade of the skhakh. צילו מרובה מחמתו: “Its shade is greater than its sunlit area.” The basic rules defining skhakh are that it be made from vegetable matter (gidulo min hakarka) and that it not “receive impurity”—i.e., not be made of earthenware, metal, animal skins, etc., and that it not be, e.g., fruits per se. It also may not be “attached” to the earth, but must have been harvested or cut down.

A common feature of all these halakhot is that the skhakh must be in a certain sense simple or straightforward. For example, a ”sukkah made under a sukkah”—that is, one covered by two separate levels of skhakh separated from one another by a significant distance—is unfit. In theory, the upstairs family may have a sukkah, whose floor serves as the roof or skhakh of the one underneath. But such an arrangement is improper; even if the space is unoccupied, so long as there is a gap (some say a tefah or handbreadth, others 3 or 10 tefahim) between the two layers of skhakh, it is unfit. Within the sukkah itself, one must sit or sleep directly beneath the skhakh itself, and not under another covering—e.g., sleeping in a four-poster canopied bed, or underneath the bed itself (!), if it is high enough to constitute a “tent.” Similarly, bundles of sticks or straws that are tied together may not be used, unless they are loosened. Likewise, finished lumber, even if the boards are distinct from one another, may not be used, because it looks too much like regular roofing. Again, if one has a roof made of beams that are not fastened together by some sort of adhesive material, rent, one may lift and replace each piece, thereby making it “anew” for the festival. Climbing vines or branches overhanging from a tree may not be used unless they have been cut from the roots or, in the case of branches, pushed down place in such a way that they mingle naturally with the “regular,” detached skhakh—and then only as “filling,” after the 50% minimum of shade has been provided by regular skhakh.

These case laws all seem expressions of a more general principle: תעשה אותו ולא מן העשוי—“you shall make it, and not from that which is already made.” That is, unlike the walls of the sukkah, which may be preexistent (some people make their sukkah in a special room in their homes with a retractable roof, where they then place the skhakh), the skhakh must be placed down specifically for the purpose of this mitzvah, and not made out of something which happens to grow in the area, or a fixed roof.

What are we to make of all these laws? It seems to me that the sukkah exists in a certain tension between dirat ara’i & dirat keva: between being a temporary dwelling or a permanent one. Most of the laws relating to the shkhakh—for example, the requirements for the materials used therein, or the idea that it must be made specifically for the holiday—reflect a sense of transience, of the temporary nature of this dwelling. On the other hand, there are certain comments in the sugyot to suggest that the sukkah must meet certain minimum requirements is similar to that which one has in ones permanent home. More important, the manner in which one dwells in the sukkah is “as you dwell in your home”: one eats, drinks, “hangs out” with ones friends, studies, serves meals using one’s finest tableware, decorates it, and even sleeps in the sukkah. Thus, the widespread practice of taking one’s major meals only in the sukkah is a minimalist one. There is thus a clear tension between permanence and transience or, to phrase it differently, between protection and exposure. In the sukkah one is “protected”; indeed, in the Zohar and mystical sources one is seen as “taking refuge in the shadow of the Holy One blessed be He.”

Turning to the symbolic meaning of the sukkah: this is the only one of the three pilgrimage holidays that does not commemorate a specific historical event. We are only told in a general way that they are ”because I caused the children of Israel to dwell in booths (sukkot) when I took them out of the land of Egypt” [Lev 23:43]. Why, of all the events of the post-Sinai, desert years, did the Torah focus on these rude huts and the sense of being protected by God for commemoration in such a way? It would appear that the idea of ongoing Divine protection, as a central theme of the desert years and of Jewish (and human) existence in general, is a topic of great importance; that security comes from trust in God, rather than from man’s own efforts.

There is a rather interesting discussion on the symbolic meaning of the sukkah, mingling both halakhic and aggadic elements. When the Torah speaks of the Israelites dwelling in Sukkot during the course of the Exodus from Egypt, does this refer to real, literal Sukkot, or to “clouds of glory” (ענני כבוד)? Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva debate this point (interestingly, in the two places where this appears, in the Talmud at Sukkah 11b and the ancient halakhic midrash Sifra, the positions as to which one says what are reversed). About what do they disagree? Actual sukkot (sukkot mamash) represent human endeavor, huts built by human beings from whatever came to hand in the desert; God’s role in “causing them to dwell“ in sukkot is thus an indirect one, providing them with the materials to do so and the wisdom to figure out to how to use them to protect themselves. If the sukkot are seen as “clouds of glory,” as a kind of supernatural dwelling place, the Exodus and what happened there are likewise seen in miraculous, transcendent terms, utterly unlike anything known to us from our own experience. The lessons to be drawn, in terms of the old debate about quietistic reliance upon Divine intervention and human activism, is clear.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Yom Kippur (Rashi)

The Secret of Yom Kippur

What is the source of the power of Yom Kippur? More than any other day of the year, Yom Kippur is that time when nearly all Jews—“the far and the near”—gather together in the synagogue to seek… something. What is it?

Interestingly, there is one other occasion which rivals this attractive power, even to the otherwise assimilated: Pesah. Many, many Jews of all kinds celebrate the Passover Seder, in one fashion or another. And yet the two days are very different. The one is a day of celebration, of being with family, of eating and drinking, of talking and telling, of questions and answers. It celebrates the primal event of our people, the very beginning of our nation: the Exodus, a time of birth, of freshness. Appropriately enough, it falls in the springtime, when the world of nature is renewing itself and “the buds are seen in the land.”

Yom Kippur is a day of solemnity, of sobriety, just before the onset of fall and winter; a day that strikes a somewhat somber note: “who shall live and who shall die.” We neither eat nor drink. We spend the day, not at home, but in the synagogue. Even though we worship among others, we ultimately stand alone before God. Each person must render account of his deeds, good and bad. One cannot fall back on fellowship when it’s time to do teshuva.

As recounted in the Torah, Yom Kippur represents the great reconciliation between God and His people following the sin of the Golden Calf; the moment when Moses hid in the cleft of the rock, and God passed by, allowing him a glimpse of “the knot of His tefillin,” and revealing the secret of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. It is thus a time, not of newness, but of a second chance, of what some call “second innocence.” But this is an innocence born of knowledge—knowledge of our own weaknesses, of the evils of which ourselves and others are capable, of the dangers of moral failure, of the fantasies and desires lurking just beneath the surface. It “celebrates” what we do with our failure.

In a sense, Yom Kippur represents two opposing needs within our souls: for taharah, and for kaparah. On the one hand, we aspire to a higher, purer, finer self, for the integrity and uprightness brought by true teshuvah. None of us lives up to our highest expectations for ourselves, and our culture surrounds us with cheap and tawdry distractions. Yom Kippur is the end of a protracted period when we “seek God when He is to be found.” On the other hand, we feel the need for forgiveness and atonement for our past sins and shortcoming—even if we do not succeed in rebuilding ourselves. For in our “second innocence,” we know that even now we are not entirely innocent; we know our Achilles’ heels, and that we may slip up as we have in the past. We can only hope and pray for kaparah. Yom Kippur is the day when God sits on the Throne of Compassion, and wipes our slate clean through the very essence of the day.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Yom Kippur (Months)

For more teachings on Yom Kippur and Teshuvah, see below, archives for September 2006.

“Is This the Fast I Have Chosen?”

What is the object of fasting? Let me begin with an unexpected perspective: On the evening before Rosh Hashanah, I participated in a panel discussion on the approach to fasting in the three Western monotheistic religions—Islam, Judaism and Christianity. On one level, I was struck by the similarity in certain of the patterns among these very different religions: all three have thirty to forty-day annual periods of intensified spirituality, involving certain practices of abstinence and fasting and focusing on the soul: Ramadan; Elul + Days of Awe; and Lent. There are similar social patterns as well: in both Judaism and Islam, it is customary to make the breaking of the fast into a social occasion, typically involving many neighbors and friends beyond the immediate family circle. At one point, too, the Muslim speaker, Dr. Mustapha Abu Sway of el-Quds University, quoted a Sufi saying that could have come from a Hasidic rebbe: that when one fasts without spiritual consciousness, one is not fasting, but simply not eating.

But an interesting tension within the traditions quickly became apparent. The Catholic spokesman, Dr Bernard Sabella, spoke of the ethical component of fasting, on which both I and the Muslim spokesman commented (see below), carrying it one step further by asking a sharp question: how many people see the Other, the member of the other religious-ethnic community, as “their neighbor”? How many of us see the human face of the Palestinian or, for the Arab, of the Israeli living a few miles away? How many at least feel empathy and understanding for the suffering, pain and travail they may undergo?

At this point a young Greek Orthodox priest joined the discussion, saying that, if one accepts the reality of demons and devils, the only way to wage war against them is by breaking their power through humbling the body—i.e., by fasting. He invoked the verse in Psalms 51:19, “God’s offerings are a broken spirit,” as “clearly” referring to fasting. He went on to note that, in his church, fasting and abstinence are observed, not only during the “Great” Lent, but also during the “minor” Lent before Christmas, two weeks of abstinence in the summertime, every Wednesday and Fridays—and that, moreover, one broke the fast at nightfall on bread, water, and a bit of fruits and nuts. No flesh, no fish, no fowl, no eggs, no dairy products, no oil (except on Saturdays and Sundays); certainly none of the delicacies customarily consumed by Muslims after Ramadan, or the cakes, fish and whatnot on which many of us will doubtless break fast after Yom Kippur.

After my initial shock at hearing a real live person (one many several decades younger than myself!) saying these things, I realized that the spirit of rigor and abstinence (some might say, a paradoxical kind of pride in one’s humility and fortitude in waging such spiritual battles) is still very much alive, certainly among the Greek Orthodox.

But to return to our own tradition: within Judaism, as in human religious life in general, there are two almost diametrically opposed approaches to the question: what is the purpose of fasting? On the one hand, fasting may be viewed—particularly by those influenced by modern rationalism and/or secular-humanistic ways of thinking—as no more than a catalyst for the really important tasks: ethical introspection, leading to moral reform, and ending in the individual recommitting himself to ethical behavior in the human world. And indeed, one need go no further than the haftarah read on Yom Kippur morning to find texts supporting this view: “Is this the fast I have chosen?” thunders the prophet Isaiah. “To bow your head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes… [while] quarreling and fighting and hitting with a wicked fist…” Rather, it ought to be a day when one will “loosen the bonds of wickedness… let the oppressed go free, break every yoke, share your bread with the hungry…” (Isa 58:3-7). Similarly, when the prophet Zechariah was asked by the people who returned to Zion whether they should continue to “weep and abstain during the fifth month, as we have done these many years” (Zech 7:3)—i.e., to observe the fast of Tisha b’Av—he did not answer their question directly, but gave a long, roundabout answer: engage in righteous judgments, act with mercy and compassion, do not oppress the widow, orphan and stranger, etc. —and only thereafter did he answer their query, almost as an aside (8:18-19). Rambam also stresses that, alongside heartfelt public prayer and crying out to God, public fast days were marked by the leaders of the town delivering severe warnings to known miscreants and men of violence (Ta’aniyot 1.17; cf. my blog, 17th of Tammuz (Rambam), in archives for July 2006). In this view, any fast which does not lead to inner change, to caring for those less fortunate than oneself, is seen as morally, spiritually, religiously, and ethically pointless.

On the other hand, there is a position which emphasizes a spiritual, even metaphysical dimension to fasting. By denying the body, one transcends one’s biological nature and attempts, so to speak, to live on a purely spiritual plane, like one of the angelic hosts. This is perceived as a valuable spiritual exercise in its own right. Thus, Sefer ha-Hinukh, attributed to R. Aharon of Barcelona, describes the rationale for fasting on Yom Kippur as follows:

Through God’s mercies to His creatures He fixed one day of the year to atone for all their sins, coupled with repentance… therefore we are commanded to fast on this day. For eating and drinking and other sensual pleasures arouse matter to be drawn after its desires and to sin. And it hampers the form of the intellective soul from seeing the truth, which is the service of God and His good and sweet instruction to those who have awareness. And it is not fitting that a servant come for judgment before his master with a soul darkened and confused due to eating and drinking and the thoughts of material things that are within it. For a person is judged according to his acts at that hour. Therefore it is preferable that he strengthen his intellective soul and humble the material things before it on that great day, so that he may be deserving and ready to receive its atonement, and that it not by blocked by the screen of desire. (Mitzvat Aseh §278; Emor, §16)

We find here a clear dichotomy, so to speak, between the world of spirit and that of matter; that, at least on this holy day, one behave in a fashion enabling one to transcend the corporeal plane on which we ordinarily live, and give ourselves over entirely to the spirit.

Which one, then, is the correct path? The way of engaged ethical action in the world, or the way of piety, of withdrawal (whether to a hermitage or a yeshiva), of self–purification through a strict regimen.

I’ve been working recently on a translation project relating to Martin Buber, who represents, paradoxical as the term may sound, a kind of “secular religious humanism”—that is, an approach ultimately informed by a deep sense of the presence of “The Eternal Thou,” but in which things like prayer and ritual play no role. In principle, one’s connection with God is expressed through life in this world in accordance with a certain kind of consciousness and way of relating to the other—be it human, beast, ecosphere, or God.

All this connects to another question. Yom Kippur has a tremendous power over Jews—including many who are distant from the synagogue and from other Jewish activities all year long. From whence does this great power derive? Some see it is a kind of minimal act of symbolic identification with the Jewish collectivity, but it seems to me that it goes far beyond that. The entire experience: the fasting, the confession of sin, the gathering together in the synagogue, the solemn strains of the ancient melodies of Kol Nidrei and Ha-Melekh—somehow have a cathartic effect on the soul, even for those Jews who seem far away.

But is all this merely a psychological trick? I tend not to view it so. There is something in the soul that cries out for that which is beyond the rational, the utilitarian, the clear and “scientific” and explainable—in short, all those things that the modernist approach, with its self-confident belief in man’s mastery of all things, seems to do so well. Perhaps my Greek Orthodox priest wasn’t so far off the mark when he spoke of “demons and devils”—albeit understood metaphorically. There are depths within the soul, within the unconscious, within the imagination (whatever term you care to use), which go way beyond the simple, practical, functional understanding of human life and human needs. And there are horrors within the world—including the horrendous and unexpected side-effects of human mastery and power and intellect—that threaten to destroy us all. There is a place within is that feels alienated from God, that seeks meaning, that seeks not only societal reform, but some kind of personal wholeness and harmony with what we call God.

To return to the polarities I invoked in my Rosh Hashanah teaching: there is teshuvah and there is kaparah (see also the lead piece in my blog for Yom Kippur: “Atonement, Repentance, and What Is In Between”). Teshuvah, in the narrower sense, may be interpreted as ethical renewal: a process of review of ones character that even the secular humanist can agree with. But there is another dimension addressed on Yom Kippur, that goes deeper: that of kaparah, atonement, of purifying oneself before God. Of declaring a kind of moral bankruptcy, of admitting that one is not all-powerful. I make mistakes; I do not even really understand myself and my motivations for doing what I do. I may make bad decisions, in the mistaken certainty that I have considered every aspect of this decision from all sides. But five, ten, twenty years may pass, and suddenly my eyes are opened, and certain things are obvious to me about my past actions to which I was oblivious then. Perhaps I could not possibly have seen them in “real time.” (Perhaps this is the significance of the verse in our Rosh Hashanah reading: vayifkah elohim et eineha, God opened Hagar’s eyes [Gen 21:19]. Previously she had only seen sand and dunes, and thought she had no option but to stoically accept her son’s inevitable death; suddenly, she was able to perceive the well in the desert, which would solve her dilemma). Kaparah means reconciliation with God, a certain kind of purity, in a way we hardly understand.

In the end, the high road of Judaism has always been the “unifying of opposites.” Not to bifurcate purity–transcendence–God-relation vs. being in the world, ethical tikkun, etc., but to unify both. To be active in the world, in a way informed by purity and holiness.

Ten Days of Teshuva

POSTSCRIPTS: Three Short Sermons for Rosh Hashana

The Shofar, Threes and the Dynamism of Torah

Everything relating to Rosh Hashana is built around threes. Under Torah law, we are required to sound nine blast of the shofar—three sets of three each; but because of an uncertainty as to precisely what is meant by the term yom teru’ah, these are sounded in three different variants—what we call shevarim, teruah, and the combination of the two in shevarim-teru’ah—making a total of 9 + 9 + 12 notes, totalling 30. Moreover, the sounds themselves are constructed in multiples of threes: the teki’ah is one clean, unbroken blast; the shevarim, three shorter sounds, reminiscent of sighs or groans; and and the teruah, nine very short sounds, like someone weeping uncontrollably.

Moreover, the middle blessings of Musaf, which give the day its liturgical character, and which might be described as a mini-course in Jewish theology, couched in Midrashic language, is also made of threes: there are three blessings—Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, Shofarot—each one consisting of three parts: an opening exposition, ascribed by tradition to the amora Rav; a middle section, consisting of ten biblical proof texts; and a closing petition and blessing. The proof texts are in turn taken from the three sections of the Tanakh, three from each part, plus a concluding verse from the Torah: 3 + 3 + 3 + 1 = 10, again, a total of 30 verses. (These two sections, the primitive, unadorned, ancient sounds of the ram’s horn, and the elegant Hebrew of the Musaf liturgy, complement one another, coming as they do from the pre-verbal and verbal realms of expression.)

Why three? Three is a basic number, symbolizing growth, dynamism, life itself. The nuclear family consists of three: a father, a mother, and the child created through their union. Even when there are several children, each child stands in relation to its parents as the third member of triad. Or, according to the Hegelian theory of dialectics, all cultural and social progress occurs through the tension between opposing thesis and antithesis, leading in turn to a new synthesis, which then becomes the thesis of a new triad. In much the same way, each child may eventually becomes the parent of a new child, who will be grandchild to the original parents—and so on ad infinitum. Or, in the Sefirotic tree of the Kabbalah, contradictory elements are harmonized in a third principle—hokhmah & binah in da’at; hesed & gevurah in tiferet; and so forth. And so, too, we have three daily prayers, three pilgrimage festivals, and many other threes in our tradition.

Another significant use of the number three in Judaism appears in the second mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “On three pillars the world stands: on Torah, on avodah (Divine service), and on acts of kindness.”

Torah is one of the central themes connected with the shofar: thus, the blessing of Shofarot moves from a poetic portrayal of the Revelation at Sinai to the Final Redemption, the link connecting them being the shofar. According to one midrash, the shofar sounded at Sinai was made of the left horn of the ram offered by Abraham at the Akedah, in place of his son Isaac; while the right horn was fashioned into the “great shofar” which will herald the Messiah.

In recollecting the Sinai event, Deut 5:19 speaks of kol gadol velo yasaf, a phrase which can be translated in two diametrically opposite ways: “a great voice which did not continue”—that is, Sinai as a singular, unique event, the Torah given there as closed and unchangeable; or “a great voice which did not cease”—i.e., revelation as an ongoing, continuing event, ever-becoming. The process of Oral Torah, of human interpretation, is thus seen as an integral part of our hearing or sounding of the divine voice. (This phrase is used, in all its ambiguity, as the title of a recent interesting book on the philosophy of halakhah by Yochanan Silman.)

There is thus a tension between the fixed and the dynamic aspects of Torah, between the written text and the living interpretation. It is Oral Torah that enables the Torah to be alive, “a Torah of life.” Indeed, it is this tension that is expressed in the slogan “Tradition and Change,” used by the Conservative movement. Although I disagree with some, perhaps even many, of the applications and implementations this movement has made of this slogan, in principle the idea is correct. Traditional Orthodox Jewry has too long suffered from a fortress mentality; hopefully, we are now seeing the beginnings of a movement within halakhically-loyal Jewry for renewed vitality and dialectical rethinking of the halakhic process.

This dialectical process is exemplified by the Shemitah (sabbatical) year, which just began on this Rosh Hashana. This institution—a complete halt of all agricultural labor; the opening of whatever grows by itself in the fields and orchards in a free and equal way to all and any comers; the cancellation of debts—expresses an idyllic vision of human equality, a kind of primitive and simple form of socialism, of radical sharing of wealth among all. But experience has shown it to be unworkable in this world. Thus, two solutions, really legal fictions, have been developed that, on the one hand, maintain the formal rules of shemitah and, on the other, enable people to live. (I refer to heter mekhira and pruzbul—the pro-forma sale of the Land of Israel to a non-Jew, allowing normal agricultural activity to go on; and the formal transfer of outstanding debts to the Court, who is allowed to collect them on behalf of the creditor even after the end of shemitah.)

A second aspect of Torah worth mentioning is the obligation to engage in Talmud Torah; that Torah study is a central religious act in Judaism. This universal duty of life-long study, a rare phenomenon in human cultures, has clearly shaped Jewish life. Indeed, some modernists like to cite it as a reason for Jewish intellectual success in a wide variety of fields—the disproportionate number of Nobel Prize winners, the geniuses like Marx and Freud and Einstein who reshaped our world, Jewish contributions in science and arts and literature and social criticism. But be that as it may, the main thrust of this idea is still that it is imperative for the modern Jew, whatever his “belief,” to learn about Judaism to read Jewish books. To study Torah, in its broadest sense—not only Talmud and poskim, but Jewish philosophy, mysticism, modern study of the Bible, etc. A daily chapter of Tanakh, reading parshat hashavua, are good places to start. Rosh Hashana is a good time for each person to resolve to “fix times for Torah.”

On Prayer and Piyyutim

The second of the three “pillars” on which the world stands is avodah, Divine service, which, in today’s, post-Temple world, is equated with verbal prayer. The Days of Awe—Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and the days of Selihot before it and in between—are days of intense and extended prayer. It is important that people pray with passion, with engagement, that it be real. One must not only read the words, but strive for a sense of literally standing before God.

When I was a teenager, Rabbi Josiah Derby z”l, the rabbi of my family’s local synagogue, told me the following story about his own father, a Berdichever hasid. His father used to say of himself that “I don’t fast on Yom Kippur.” To the astonishment of his listeners upon hearing such a “confession” from such an obviously pious Jew, he explained: “Every day of the year neither food nor drink passes my lips until after I finish davening. On Yom Kippur the prayers just take a bit longer.” This is how a Jew ought to pray on Yom Kippur!

What is prayer? It is essentially defined as avodah, as service of God. Thus, while it contains bakashot, requests relating to our needs as individuals and as a community, the emphasis is not on asking for our needs, but on standing before God, on praising Him, on being in relation to Him. Bakashat tzerakhim is merely an offshoot of that—we recognize our dependence on Him, and hence address whatever requests we have regarding our life to him. And indeed, our Shabbat and festive prayers omit the section of requests entirely. True, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur there are certain petitionary prayers, but these are of a very general nature—asking for the renewal of life and, on Yom Kippur, for forgiveness of sins.

One of the features of the High Holy Days that puzzles many people is the profusion of piyyutim that fill the liturgy. These are medieval liturgical poems, written in a very difficult, some would say contorted Hebrew, with numerous unusual and unfamiliar grammatical constructions and thick with midrashic and other allusions, almost invariable phrased in obscure and difficult language. They were written for a Jewish culture in which popular knowledge of midrashim was widespread, common coin.

I will discuss piyyutim at greater length some other time. For now, I will conclude with one general comment: that the impulse that guided the authors of the piyyutim was hiddur mitzvah—the desire to adorn and beautify the liturgy of these special days. “This is my God and I will beautify Him.” Perhaps most of the piyyutim are too difficult and obscure to appeal to most of us—800 or 1000 years is a long time, and cultural tastes change—but perhaps we can try to implement the spirit, making our prayers an opportunity to serve God with both beauty and devotion.

Teshuvah and Gemillut Hasadim

A point that is obvious, but bears repeating: in our day, there is widespread distortion of the concepts of teshuvah and the identity of the ba’al teshuvah. The term seems to have been preempted, as referring to the process of becoming “religious” or “observant” or “Orthodox.” Yet teshuvah is really about the inner work each person needs to do. Becoming “religious” in the sense of beginning to observe Shabbat, don tefillin, eat kosher, and pray daily is in a sense the easy part. The more difficult part is the lifelong struggle with negative character traits, habits and behavior with which every human being on the face of this planet is beset, in one degree or another: anger, laziness, addiction to things that seem pleasurable [food, sex, smoking, alcohol, gossip, TV, computer games, whatever], irresponsibility, gossip, nastiness to others, dishonesty in money dealings… the list is endless. And both “religious” and “secular” people have much to do in these areas.

The third pillar of Judaism is gemillut hasadim: acts of kindness, which really encompasses the whole area of inter-human relations. Examples include rejoicing the bride, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, loaning money or goods to those that need them. Historically, the Jewish community functioned as an instrument enabling people to practice hesed, by organizing societies for these purposes. I remember that once, in the Pardes minyan in Ramat Eshkol where I used to daven every Shabbat, a certain person suffered a brain tumor. Every Shabbat afternoon people from the community went to his home, to talk to him, to say some words of Torah, to pray Minha and Ma’ariv together so he would have the opportunity once a week to worship with a community. This continued until he died. Some years later, when one of the initiators of this weekly visit himself fell sick, people visited him every week at the same time—and, as I learned later by accident, throughout this period certain people—not millionaires, but people with a few spare shekels—unobtrusively paid the rent and helped the family as much as they were able, o assure that they would not suffer on account of this illness.

An interesting thought occurred to me this year: the readings for the Second Day of Rosh Hashana are concerned wth “big” events: the religious heroism displayed in Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac and, in the haftarah, the promise of redemption in Jeremiah 31. But what of the readings for the First Day? These are concerned with humble, family events, “the day of small things”—the birth and childhood of Isaac, the separation from Hagar and Ishmael, Hanah’s barrenness, her prayer and childbirth. These, the Sages who arranged the readings seem to be telling us, are in their own way as of great importance as the “world–historical” dramas of the Second Day.

One more thought: the essence of the Akedah was Abrahams’ total self-abnegation, his foregoing all of his personal hopes and aspirations for the future to do God’s will. In a humble, simple way, this is also the core idea underlying the practice of hesed. The ethics of practical kindness towards others implies a minor kind of bittul hayesh, of self-abnegation. It means foregoing one’s own self, one’s autonomy and individual will, to sacrifice one’s time and money, in order to place others at the center. In today’s world, this is a profound and significant message.

Rosh Hashana - Tishrei (Months)

Rosh Hashana: Two Meanings of Shofar

For whom is the Shofar meant: for man or for God? The tradition interprets the blowing of the shofar, the central religious event of Rosh Hashanah, in two almost diametrically opposed ways. In one view, the shofar is a kind of non-verbal prayer, an inarticulate cry to God, like that of a small child. Indeed, the vibrating sounds of the shevarim and teruah are seen as modeled, respectively, after groaning and weeping. Or it might be compared to the tze’akah, the urgent prayer of public fast days, a pained cry or shout, only more so. It is the most elemental prayer, a plea for life itself. The midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 29.3) portrays God on Rosh Hashanah as seated in awe-inspiring majesty upon the Throne of Judgment, as all the beings in the cosmos pass before Him. Suddenly Israel blow the shofar, and “He rises from the Throne of Judgment, and sits upon the Throne of Mercy.” The shofar is here seen as a theurgic act, a way of “forcing God’s hand,” as it were. Hence Shofarot, the last of the three special middle blessings of Musaf, concludes with the words “for you hear the voice of the shofar, and listen to the teruah-warbling, and there is none like You. Blessed are You, O Lord, who hears the shofar-blasts of His people Israel with compassion.”

On the other hand, it is seen elsewhere as a kind of wake-up call to each individual. A famous passage in Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuvah 3.4) depicts the shofar as saying, “Awake, o sleepy ones, and slumberers, shake off your torpor. Search out your deeds, turn in repentance and remember your Creator…” The shofar is a call to return, to repent, to mend our ways, to become aware of what life is really about, to become truly awake, to live truly conscious lives. In this view, it is God Himself, so-to-speak, who calls to the Jews by means of the shofar: the baal toke’a serves here, not as the representative of the congregation interceding before God, but as a kind of agent acting on His behalf to perform this task (the two opposed positions being somewhat reminiscent of Moses’ dual function). The shofar blasts are thus a kind of echo of that first shofar blast at Sinai, alluded to in that selfsame Shofarot blessing, this time in the opening section: “You revealed Yourself in Your cloud of glory to Your holy people to speak with them. Your voice was heard from the heavens… You were revealed in thunder and lightning, and manifested with the sound of the shofar ….” And indeed, in halakhic terms it is of course we, and not God, who are commanded to hear the shofar, as indicated by the blessing lishmo’a kol shofar—“to hear the sound of the shofar.”

It seems to me that these two approaches reflect two diametrically opposed aspects of the human being. On the one hand, man is frail, needy, dependent upon God’s grace for every morsel of food and for very breath he takes. Our lives are utterly contingent, and insecure in the deepest existential sense. In principle (and increasingly, in this perilous new century, in reality), catastrophe, changing or destroying our life, can overtake us at any moment. This is why a prayer such as Untaneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die!” strikes such a deep resonance even today.

On the other hand, “you have made him little lower than the angels.” The human being is gifted with reason, with understanding, with a whole gamut of talents and potentialities and, most important, with a certain moral and spiritual sense and the freedom to choose his/her path. One of the primal axioms of Jewish belief is behirah hofshit, the idea that we are free to choose our path in life, and that consequently we are responsible for our actions. Our moral and religious life does not center around our groveling in our helplessness and relying upon Divine grace to atone for an alleged fundamentally sinful state, but rather in right action in the world. Hence, the season of these Days of Awe revolves around teshuvah, man awakening and turning towards the right path, making the choice between good and evil.

Which of these views is the correct one? Surely, one must say: both, and neither. Man is, as Pascal put it, “but a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed”; that is, he is frail and subject to forces far greater than himself, but imbued with consciousness and capable of reflecting upon his own life—and, we would add, thus capable of changing himself. Judaism is all about the balance between the two attitudes, and allows ample room for both. The Musar moment had a Slobodka, whose motto was Gadlut ha-Adam, the greatness of man, but also a Navarhadok, which emphasized the smallness and fallibility of man. Similarly, one of the great Hasidic teachers was said to have kept two slips of paper in his pockets, on one of them written “for you are dust and to dust you shall return,” and on the other ”for my sake was the world created.” The wisdom, he said, consists in knowing when to use each one.

We have now come full circle in our studies of the months of the year, returning to the first one, Tishrei. Its astrological symbol is Libra (Moznayim), the scales. Traditionally, these are seen as the scales of judgment upon which the Almighty weighs the deeds of each person on Rosh Hashanah. But perhaps it can be seen differently: as a scale of balance, of reconciling two opposites, of knowing how to weigh the Rebbe’s two slips of paper in a balanced manner. To know how to avoid despair and fatalism; and equally to avoid the arrogance of thinking that “I am master of my fate and none can stop me.”

One more comment: this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, hence the shofar will not be blown on the first day. Perhaps on such an occasion the shofar (or better, zikhron teruah, the memory or echo of the shofar in our hearts) assumes a third meaning: the shofar as song. (For my teachings about Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, one of my own favorite teachings, see my blog).

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But Rosh Hashanah is not only a day of judgment for individuals, but is also the time when entire nations are judged, nay, all of humankind and the earth as a whole. “And it is said concerning the nations: which for the sword, and which for peace; which for famine, and which for plenty… the remembrance of every creature comes before you, man’s thoughts, and the impulse of each man’s heart.”

We live in a time of dire threats to the future of mankind on this planet, and of Mother Earth itself—not to mention the renewed threats to the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael. Threats of atomic warfare; ecological threats; threats of far-reaching changes to our civilization once the petroleum begins to become scarce. It is a time for prayer—but also a time for deep, far-reaching thought; for wisely considered action on behalf of tikkun olam; time that there be heard an upswelling chorus of the masses of humanity, calling upon our leaders everywhere to abandon petty disputes and hateful demagoguery, and to think of the long-range survival of us all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rosh Hashana (Rashi)

Two Kinds of Rosh Hashana

This year I noticed an interesting thing: that Rosh Hashana, notwithstanding it being one of the major festivals of the Jewish calendar—the beginning of the year, the Day of Judgment when God inscribes the fate of each person in the Books of Life and Death—is mentioned in only a very brief and sketchy fashion in the Torah. All told, there are two brief parshiyot, one of three verses, one of six, relating to this day (Lev 23:23-25; Num 29:1-6). This, in contrast to the pilgrimage holidays, which are mentioned by themselves in three separate places (Exod 23:14-19; Exod 34:18, 22-26; Deut 16), as well as appearing in the two other chapters that provide comprehensive lists of all the festive days—in Emor (Lev 23) and in Pinhas (Num 28-29; here the focus is exclusively on the sacrifices offered on those day). Yom Kippur, which is also only mentioned as a festival in these two chapters, has its own separate chapter describing the atonement ritual in the Temple (Lev 16). Thus, only Rosh Hashana is discussed so tersely. Let us examine Rashi’s comment on the first of these two passages:

Lev 23:24. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a day of rest, a remembrance of horn-blowing, a holy convocation.” Rashi: Remembrance of the verses of Remembrance and of Shofar, that there be remembered on your behalf the Binding of Isaac, in whose place a ram was offered (Rosh Hashana 32a).

The only phrase in this passage that actually describes or defines the specific nature of this holiday, as opposed to any others, consists of the two words, זכרון תרועה, “a remembering [or: mentioning] of horn-blowing”; in the parallel passage in Num 29:1, the phrase used is יום תרועה, “a day of horn blowing.” One Talmudic reading sees this difference as alluding to the fact that, when Rosh Hashana falls on the Shabbat, the shofar is not blown, but is “remembered” by means of the three special blessings added to the Musaf prayer (R.H. 29a; see HY I: Rosh Hashana, where I elaborated upon this at some length). Here, Rashi seems to ignore the shofar altogether, focusing on the meaning of the verses recited, and drawing attention to the idea of the Akedah as a paradigmatic moment in the history of the covenant between God and Israel.

Ramban raises numerous objections to this comment of Rashi: why, in this very first mention of Rosh Hashana, does he emphasize the blessings added in Musaf, which are of Rabbinic provenance, rather than shofar blowing, which is the central and unique Torah commandment of the day? Moreover, even assuming that it is somehow appropriate to mention this framework, why does he specifically mention only the latter two of the three blessings, skipping Malkhuyot, arguably the most important of all, signifying as it does the ”Enthronement” of God as our King?

Even if one were to answer all of Ramban’s objections (which isn’t our purpose here), why, of all subjects, and with all the varied comments by Hazal on this verse, did he specifically choose this theme?

I will attempt to answer this question in a somewhat impressionistic manner. In doing so, I will also backtrack somewhat from some of the things I said last week about man’s capacity for teshuva, and his ability to change himself as the zenith of his essence as an autonomous being with free-will.

This season revolves around two basic ideas: teshuva and tefilla, repentance or turning, and prayer. These days are known as the Ten Days of Teshuva, and their outstanding feature is the call to teshuva, to engage in self-examination and reflection, to seek to make oneself a better person and a better Jew. They are also days when much time is devoted to prayer—beginning with the Selihot, whether throughout Elul or during its final week, and continuing through the Days of Awe themselves, with the lengthiest and most highly–developed liturgy of the year.

In principle, these reflect two different, in a sense diametrically opposed moods. (Note: I am not speaking here of two different kinds of people. Each person, at different times, feels him/herself filled with strength and with the capacity to change and to act decisively, while at others, we may feel vulnerability, weakness, that even when it is clear to us what we must do, we lack the power to translate it into action.) Teshuva is based upon a sense of self-confidence, upon the belief that every human being has the capacity and, if he but marshals it, the will to return to God, to recreate himself in a positive way. Notwithstanding whatever dastardly and loathsome things he may have done, whatever cruelty and greed and perverted imaginings may lie below the surface of his consciousness—so long as there is life, self-renewal is possible.

Prayer, in the classical sense of bakashat tzerakhim, of “requesting one’s needs” of God, is based in principle upon acknowledgement of our dependence upon God, of a certain degree of existential helplessness. This is particularly true of the prayers of Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur, which are filled with references to our own smallness and worthlessness, to the insignificance of human life, of the smallness of even the powerful monarch compared to the transcendent majesty and glory of the Everlasting King. In prayers like Unetaneh tokef, Avinu Malkinu, and in the various refrains inserted in the Amidah (“remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life…,” “record all the members of your covenant for good life,” “in the Book of Life, blessing and peace inscribe us…”), there is a keen sense of human mortality, and of the uncertainty and insecurity entailed in the future as such.

This is the reason for the numerous references to “merit of the fathers” throughout the High Holy Day liturgy. As if to say: we don’t have that much spiritual strength; we know that our actions this past year have not been particularly holy or even decent; we don’t even know if we can really do teshuva properly, even though that is the one thing that is really up to us. But we do know that there were such people, that the Jewish people has produced spiritual giants: the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are paradigmatic of this, and hence are mentioned throughout the prayers, often in arcane poetic circumlocutions. And one might add: throughout the generation there have been geniuses, erudite and devoted scholars, mystics whose souls were on fire with love of God, saints of faultless generosity and caring for others, people who performed heroic acts of devotion and self-sacrifice, overcoming their natural human egotism in transcendent devotion to God. Here, too, the Akedah is a kind of paradigm for all the martyrs who died in Kiddush Hashem. So we invoke their memory, and see them as models whom we seek to emulate—or at least tell their story for a certain inspiration.

Re story-telling: one is reminded here of the famous story of the Rabbi of Rizhin, who used to sit back in his chair and tell the story of how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed to perform some special redemptive act, used to go into the forest, light a fire, and recite a certain kavvanah. The story concludes: even though we, many generations later, no longer know the place in the forest, nor how to light the fire nor say the kavvanah, somehow the very retelling of the story accomplishes something of value. (Interestingly, this story is retold, not only by Buber, but also by both Scholem and Idel at the peroration of their most comprehensive books.) Perhaps, one might add: there is a certain type of American Jew who is both ignorant and non-observant of anything Jewish, but considers it a good thing that there are such people. This, too, is of some value.

There are also two different, almost diametrically opposed meanings, to the blowing of the shofar as well. There is the view of Rambam, who sees the shofar as a kind of “wake-up call.” “Wake up, you sleepers… and return to your Creator” (Teshuvah 3.4). This is the moralistic, idealistic understanding of teshuvah, which sees the human being as strong, confident, capable of controlling and changing himself, even “reinventing himself,” constantly growing and changing, and rejoicing in the process. Hence, it may be fairly expected that the person will respond to such a call.

And then there is the view of the Shofar as being addressed to God, as a kind of prayer: hear the painful cry of your people, help us, remember Your promises, remember the great historical moments of the Binding of Isaac, of Sinai, of the songs sung at the Temple service, and the promises of future Redemption. This view is based on the sense of man as more dependent, weak, overwhelmed by his own faults, thrusting his burden upon God, invoking His mercies and the “merits of the fathers.” Here the shofar is a kind of prayer, but not even articulated in words; rather, more like the cry of an infant, calling upon its mother or father. This is the shofar that causes God to “rise from the throne of judgment and sit on the Throne of Mercy.” Or, if you prefer, the shofar as described in Habad, in which the life energy of the New Year is somehow drawn down through the shofar blasts.

In our own life, at this historical moment, I feel that there is a deep paradox: on the one hand, we live in a prosperous society, with material abundance unprecedented in human history, with a high level of comfort, longevity, with the great cultural works of the ages available to the average man. The middle-class dream is realized for many, probably the majority in the US and other developed countries.

On the other hand, there is a feeling that humankind in general, and the Jewish people in particular, face an uncertain future. A great crisis, a far-reaching climate change, seems to be awaiting us in the not distant future. Global warming; depletion of crucial natural resources; proliferation of nuclear weapons; the breakdown of traditional family structures—all seem to signal that “the party is over.” Humankind will have to marshal all of its resources just to survive, to adjust to the idea that we are living on a “small planet,” that “small is beautiful.” It will require great wisdom for humankind just to get through it.

And as for Israel and the Jewish people: on one level, Israel is a prosperous, successful country, a leader in computer and medical technology; the Jewish community in the US, on the level of individual accomplishment, is also a tremendous success story. And yet, the hatred directed against us from certain quarters is frightening both in its intensity and in its destructive potential. Much of it may be rhetoric, but the net result is a country that lives on constant alert, that over six decades has felt that there has been no alternative to developing the military arts.

Rashi, by choosing to emphasis the shofar in connection with the verses of Remembrance and Shofar, which in turn allude to the Ram of Isaac—that is, to the Akedah and the “merit of the fathers”—seems to be emphasizing second meaning of the shofar, and of Rosh Hashana. Teshuva in the sense of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” is a wonderful ideal—but, realistically, it’s not clear how many people are able to realize it. For the average Jew—and I will add, particularly in his day, during the Crusades and massacres of Rhineland communities, in which more than a few Jews chose martyrdom—Rosh Hashana was a day which seemed to encapsulate the insecurity of the human, and the Jewish, condition in this world—and hence a time for invoking a power greater than themselves, both Divine, and human in the sense of intercession of the holy fathers.

And yet, we must conclude with another paradox: despite the anxiety about the future, and the impending Divine judgment, Rosh Hashana is a joyous day. There is an interesting scene in the Book of Nehemiah, where Ezra reads the Torah—a large portion of which they had evidently forgotten in Exile—to the entire people on Rosh Hashana day, and they weep bitterly upon realizing how many mitzvot they have neglected. He tells them not to weep or be sad, but to go home, and “eat rich food, and drink sweet wine, and send portions to those who have nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord; but do not be sad, for the joy in God is your strength” (Neh 8:10).

“Reign over the Entire World in Your Glory”

Jews like to talk about peoplehood, survival, Torah, ethics, Israel, Holocaust, history, culture, etc. —all subjects that are not necessarily “religious.” Even the various festive days lend themselves to “secular” interpretations. But there is one day of the year, one holiday, when we engage in “God-talk”—Rosh Hashana. Hasidism speak of the first evening as “Coronation Night”—declaring the kingship of God. The word hamelekh is repeated again and again: at the beginning of Shaharit, in the blessings of the Amidah, in the first of the three special blessings added to Musaf. But there is a problem, even a paradox: God is unknowable, ineffable. Judaism does not have one authoritative theology. The subject is allusive: Rambam says that one can only describe Him in negative terms—what He is not; the Zohar uses an abundance of symbols that are allusive, pointing at Him in roundabout way; one popular Kabbalistic name for Him is Ayin, the Nothing.

Isaac Bashevis Singer has an interesting story in which a half-crazy rabbi preaches a sermon on the verse bakese leyom hagenu (though Singer was not a pious Jew, he had a very keen spiritual sensitivity, and was a kind of post-traditional seeker). Rosh Hashana, he says, is the only holiday that occurs when the moon is hidden, “covered.” This is a symbol of the non–obviousness of God’s kingship over the world. “If God were walking around in the street, it would be no trick to believe in Him!”

Where do we take this on Rosh Hashana? First, one of the closest thing we have to an articulated Jewish theology is in the blessings of Musaf. This is not a catechism, nor an ani maamin like the shortened version of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles, but a poetic presentation of three main ideas: Malkhuyot—God’s Kingship, His sovereignty over the universe; Zikhronot—Divine Providence, God acting in the world as Judge, but also as merciful father, who remembers our ancestor’s heroic deeds, and our won true situation; and Shofarot—in which the shofar is as symbol both for the epiphany at Sinai and the promises for a future Redemption. Each of these presentations is interspersed with ten biblical verses—three from each part of Tanakh, and one from the Torah to sum up. I would recommend that people read the Musaf slowly and closely. There is a tendency in many places to rush through the Amidah and sit down, particularly once the Prayer Leader begins his repetition. But on this day, it functions not only as prayer but also as instruction.

Second, since God is allusive, hard to talk about, the real question to be asked is: what does God’s existence mean for us human beings? The answer is: teshuvah; ethical decent human behavior, responsibility, accountability for our actions. God judges us, and we try to render an account of ourselves, and to increase our devotion and commitment on all levels of life—prayer, Torah, mitzvot, tzedakah, caring deeds towards others—to “sweeten the judgment.”

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I conclude with New Years wishes to all my readers—whether friends, family, or strangers. For those I haven’t written personally, please regard this as my personal blessing. May we all enjoy a year of health, blessing, sweetness, love; of meaningful and creative learning and work, and may we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Nitzavim-Vayelekh (Rashi)

For more teachings on this parasha, and on Rosh Hashana, see the archives of this blog for September 2006.

Do We Still Believe in Teshuvah?

As we enter the week of Selihot and the final preparations for the Days of Awe, with their intense focus on the issue of teshuvah, the great turning or repentance each Jew is called upon to do, I find myself asking a simple, almost banal question: Does contemporary man still believe in teshuvah? By this, I refer both to the necessity for teshuvah, and the possibility of teshuvah.

In recent years, I have encountered what amounts to a non-belief or disinterest in teshuvah in many and surprising quarters, including observant Jews, so much so that it could well be described as a leit-motif of contemporary culture. There are those who think we don’t need to do teshuvah because they believe that people are basically good, and a healthy, joyous life is one in which one accepts oneself, with all one’s faults, peccadilloes and shortcomings. This view may blame religion, society, the person’s neuroses, or the proverbial Jewish mother for ”laying a guilt trip” on otherwise healthy people. A variation of this theme, or perhaps a statement of its underlying assumptions, is the view that there are no objective or universal ethical standards. This view believes in the absolute freedom and autonomy of each individual and, in the spirit of “post-modernism,” the subjectivity and relativism of all standards and norms. Then there are those who think that we cannot do teshuvah in any significant way, because man is a creature of deeply-engrained habit; but more than that, that his basic personality, emotions, feelings, even choices, are predetermined by genetics, by the “hard-wiring” of his brain connections, etc.—a notion seemingly strengthened by much of modern brain research. In this view, human freedom and ethical choice is largely an illusion: man is essentially a biological creature, a highly sophisticated and complex animal.

And then there is a rabbi who every year during this season speaks emphatically about the idea that one should not dwell overly much on one’s sins, nor engage in Heshbon Nefesh, in the type of soul-searching in which one searches out and attempts to uproot the faults and dark spots in one’s personality and behavior. This gentleman is fond of quoting R. Simhah Bunim of Psyshcha’s dictum, “If your mind is in the muck [i.e., dwelling on the sins you have committed], then you are in the muck.” Rather, one should see this season, and especially its culmination on Yom Kippur, as days of standing before God, and hence as days of the highest joy, in which one may experience a “rendezvous with the Infinite.”

Or I remember in my student days a certain Hillel rabbi who felt that the whole idea of “commandments” as something obligatory, binding, heteronomous, imposed on the individual from without, wouldn’t go down with today’s youth; hence, he preferred to speak of the mitzvot as “invitations.” I find this approach altogether too coy, if not intellectually dishonest, an attempt to “sell” a prettified version of Judaism.

I will not attempt to refute “post-modern” relativism, nor biological determinism, nor the other arguments, some cogent and some less so, mentioned above. These are subjects which one can debate all day long, and still get nowhere, as these matters ultimately boil down to faith affirmations. In a certain way, I see Judaism as saying “nay” to many assumptions of our culture—and it is important, even while living in the midst of the secular world, to know this. The bottom line of my faith—and, so it seems to me, of any classical Jewish faith—is “to love and to fear Your Name,” and the principle of free-will. As I’ve discussed in recent weeks (see HY VIII: Vaethanan, Ekev)—and here I address mostly the approach which says that love and yearning for God are sufficient, without the component of sternness, and rigor of the law, and fear (including, perhaps most of all, a clear awareness of one’s own negative tendencies)—traditionally, the love and fear of God go hand in hand, complementing and balancing one another. Just as sternness and threats of Divine sanctions unmitigated by God’s love and compassion is incorrect and leads to pallid and lifeless places, so too the opposite is no good.

These things are exemplified in this weeks parashah, which is always read the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. It opens with the declaration, “You are all of standing this day before HWYH your God”—which may be seen as allusive to the festive “coronation” of God as your king with the shofar blasts. But this is followed by a powerful warning of the consequences of apathy and disregarding God’s law, including a specific warning to the wayward individual who thinks that he can get away with sin by “disappearing into the crowd,” so to speak, and which includes awesome and frightening images of waste and destruction—“brimstone and salt is the whole land, burnt out; nothing can be sown and r grows” (Deut 29:22)—which for our generation conjures up images of Hiroshima or of some other place laid waste by an atomic bomb.

But most interesting is the final section of this parasha, known as Parshat ha-Teshuvah (Deut 30). Reading it this year, it suddenly occurred to me that there is a certain symmetry or balance between the Garden of Eden story near the beginning of Genesis, and this week‘s parasha, with its “chapter of teshuvah” (Deut 30), in such a way that the beginning and end of the Torah form close a kind of circle. (Some years ago I mentioned Professor Jacob Milgrom’s theory that the Hextateuch, i.e. the Torah plus the Book of Joshua, is structured as a giant inversion—that is, that it has an overall symmetrical structure, on the model of ABCDEFGG’F’E’D’C’B’A’—with Moses’ encounter with God in the Cleft of the Rock at the center; see HY I: Ki Tisa for my attempt to understand why, and what this means).

At the beginning of the Torah we read that Adam and Eve were barred from eating of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”; the punishment for eating of it was death, or mortality, while refraining from it would assure life (perhaps even eternal? see Gen 3:22). Thus, the central theme in the life of humankind, from the time of our first primeval ancestors, was the pair of choices—between life and death, and between good and evil—which seem to go in tandem.

In this week’s parasha, in which Moses begins to sum up his own lengthy parting address to the Jewish people, on the eve of his own death and their crossing over (after a suitable period of mourning) to the Land of Israel, we read of a similar choice: “Behold, I have put before you this day life and good, death and evil… Therefore, choose life, that you and your children might live!” (30:15, 19). Thus, here too, near the very end of the Torah, we find the selfsame moral choice: between good and evil, between life and death. And is not that the ultimate challenge and purpose of man?

It seems to me that this is a central theological insight of Judaism. Many years ago, my late lamented friend, Father Marcel Dubois, commented to me that Good Friday was a kind of Christian equivalent to Yom Kippur. With all due respect to his memory, he was wrong. There is of course an external parallel: both are days of solemnity, of long hours spent in the house of worship, and even of certain bodily abstentions, whether full or partial (I believe that Greek Orthodox monks may fast the entire day, or nearly so)—but the theology is almost diametrically opposed.

Christianity, at least in its classical Pauline version, speaks of man as being in a fallen state, and thus dependent upon Divine intermediacy for his salvation. Its view of the human being is not a dynamic one. Thus, Christianity in fact has no “Yom Kippur,” because man cannot do real teshuvah: plagued with Original Sin, he must turns exclusively to Divine mercy and grace. Judaism also sees humanity as prone to sin, and even situates this propensity in the same Eden story: but he is capable of improving and transforming him/herself. Even his biological needs and instincts are not “evil” or part of his fallen nature, as classical Christianity would have it, but opportunities to serve God, forces that can be turned towards either good or evil. Thus, teshuvah epitomizes the essential difference between the philosophical anthropology of Judaism and that of Christianity: in the former, man has free will, and hence is constantly confronted with choices, towards which he has the ability to act.

This contrast is portrayed in somewhat humorous terms in John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version:

… these heartland people have such an inexhaustible, tiresome gift for self… Self-examination and moral acrobatics all day long: every bedroom, every breakfast nook an apologetic forum haunted by the hand-wringing ghosts of Biblical prototypes… Our Puritan heritage. How did these old Israelites get their hooks into us so deeply, sticking us with their frightful black Bible and its imprecations while their modern descendants treat the matter as a family joke, filling their own lives with violin music and clear-eyed, godless science? L’Chaim! Compared with the Jews we Protestants do indeed dwell in the valley of death. (p 396).

The above point brings us to another meaning of the opening words of Parshat Nitzavim: “You are standing this day before the Lord your God.” These words are echoed at the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, in the Neilah Prayer of Yom Kippur: אתה הבדלת אנוש מראש ותכיריהו לעמוד לפניך; “You have separated man from the beginning, and taught him to stand before You.” Teshuvah, the human being’s capability to change and to recreate himself, enables us to know God in the deepest moral and spiritual sense.


Last week we spoke about Rashi’s comment on the verse “A wandering Aramean”—an interpretation (shared with the Passover Haggadah, Sifrei, and Targum Onkelos) which makes mincemeat out of any normal reading of the syntax of the sentence, disregarding all rules of grammar and sentence structure. By interpreting the opening phrase of the verse as referring to Lavan, rather than Jacob, the former becomes an paradigm for future enemies, whether Rome, the Christian Church, or Jesus himself. Such a move is perfectly natural to midrashic thinking. The great story of Midrash is the drama of the Jewish people in history; hence, many verses are interpreted in its light.

The problem for us moderns relates to the issue of midrash vs. peshat, the plain or literal sense of the verse. We tend to think of truth or falsehood in binary terms: the verse, any verse, means either this or that, not both. Our thought patterns, in every area, are largely influenced by empiricism, carried over from the realm of natural science. We are scandalized by what looks like fuzzy thinking. But in the traditional perspective, the text is a window to a multiplicity of meanings: a prism, reflecting the Divine light into a whole spectrum or rainbow of meanings; or, to use the image of the midrash itself, like a blacksmith’s hammer hitting the anvil, emitting sparks in seventy directions. The tradition speaks of four levels of interpretation, PARDES—peshat, remez, sod & derash: literal, allegorical, mystical, and homiletical (not unlike the “foursquare interpretation” known to medieval Christian exegetes), and the truth of one reading does not exclude that of another, even if directly contradictory of the first. Different views complement and complete one another, rather than conflicting. So long as one is not dealing with a practical halakhic issue, there is room for many views. In this sense, to refer to another recent essay of mine, Jewish exegetes are more like foxes than like hedgehogs.

Regarding another part of last week’s discussion: we mentioned that Rashi reads Deut 27:24, “Cursed is he who smites his neighbor,” as referring to malicious speech, which, even though it does not deliver a physical blow, may often be far more harmful. Last Shabbat I had an interesting lesson in the dangers of lashon hara. I had heard some time ago about a scandalous affair involving a certain rabbi in the US, pertaining to a halakhic issue with which I had a certain interest. Last Shabbat I met this man, and spoke with him, and discovered that all the gossips completely omitted or failed to know or mention a crucial fact which put everything in an entirely different light.

Finally, a clarification: In my exchange with Mark Kirschbaum (HY VIII: Ki Tetsei), his references to a particular new age thinker were in response to my own comments in which I expressed discomfort with igul-kav splits based on their misuse by this same individual.