Having and Being and the Happiness of Sukkot

In this article by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller, she brings down the Orchot Tzadikim to explain that happiness is never about having, it is about being”

“Western society is infused with the right of the pursuit happiness. We hunt it down with relentless drive. Do we find it? I’m not so sure. Sure, no one is happy when they are hungry, cold, in pain, or deprived of companionship. But the tricky part is that being satiated, warm, healthy and surrounded by our fellow homo sapiens doesn’t necessarily guarantee happiness.

Orchot Tzadikim, one of the classic Jewish ethical works, presents us with an interesting theory: Happiness is never about having (possessions, status, friends, etc.); it is about being. Ultimately it is about abandoning the role of a stranger in the universe, and becoming experientially mindful of God’s constant love, wisdom and providence. The result is a continual feeling of serenity and content that is independent of outside factors.

By no means does this mean escapism or denial. It means acceptance of the fact that we are here to elevate ourselves and the world around us, and that we need the inspiration and challenges that God provides for this to happen.”

Read the article to find the seven ways that the Orchos Tzaddim presents to can change our thinking and to bring the happiness of Sukkot into our lives.

Defeating Self-Defeat

Why do people constantly sabotage themselves?
How does the scapegoat atone for the sins of Uza and Azael?

And Ahron [the Kohen Gadol-high priest] should place two lots on the two goats; one [marked] for HaShem and the other [marked] for Azazel

— Vayikra 16:8

And Ahron should press his two hands on the live goats head and confess all the sins of the Bnei Yisrael-Jewish people; on it, rebellious acts and unintentional offenses.  When, by doing so, he has placed them [all of these sins] on the goats head, he should send it into the desert with a man of the hour.

— Ibid 16:21

What would he [the man of the hour] do? He would take a crimson ribbon and tear it in two.  Half was tied to a sharp boulder while the other half was tied between the goat’s two horns.  He then pushed the goat backwards [over the peak] and it would roll down the mountain.  The goat was ripped limb from limb before it got halfway down the craggy mountain.

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

The Rabbis taught: [why] “Azazel”?  That it should be strong and hard … the academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught [why] “Azazel”? for it atones for the deeds of Uza and Azael [two fallen angels].

—Yoma 67B

Rami bar Chama taught: the numerical values of the word Hasoton-the Satan; is 364. This implies that for 364 days of the year he has authorization to prosecute but that on [one of the year’s 365 days] Yom Kippur … he does not.

—Yoma 20A

Reish Lakish taught: The Satan-the prosecuting attorney on High; the Yetzer Hara-the inclination to evil; and the Malach Hamaves-the Angel of Death; are one and the same entity.

—Bava Basra 16A

It is odd and almost counterintuitive that man, allegedly the most highly evolved of all organisms, should have the weakest of all survival instincts.  From the cradle to the grave humans are capable of reckless behaviors that endanger lives and limbs.  Humanities self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways.  From subconscious acts of self-sabotaging predicated on the excessive fear of failure, to cuttings and other forms of self-inflicted mutilation; from anorexia to obsessive overeating; from rampant consumerism that spells ecological disaster to nuclear fueled geopolitics that continue to push the envelope towards assured mutual destruction.

The most striking expression of the inclination to self-destruct is found in individuals who commit suicide including the most faddish and trendy iterations of murdering oneself including physician-assisted suicide, cop-assisted suicide and murder-suicides characteristic of both domestic violence and terrorist bombings. All in all both individual humans and humanity as a whole seem hell-bent on self-destruction.

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

The centerpiece avodah –Divine service; of Yom Kippur was the lottery of the two goats; one goat dedicated to HaShem whose blood was sprinkled in the inner sanctum while the other goat was designated as the sair laAzazel-the goat “dedicated” to Azazel; and was pushed off of a jagged cliff in the desert wilderness.  In the popular vernacular the goat that “lost” the lottery is commonly known as the scapegoat.  Many a proverbial quill has been broken in the commentaries attempts to explain such a puzzling avodah, especially on the holiest day of the year. The Ramban characterizes it as a bribe to the sitra achara-“the ‘other’ [dark] side”; while the Lubliner Kohen does not mince words and calls it an act of idolatrous worship that is, nevertheless, the Will of HaShem.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer Rebbe, offers a novel approach that recasts the sair laAzazel as the antidote for the human drive for self-destruction. But before presenting it I must introduce the foundation to unlocking the mystery of human self-destructiveness upon which the Bais Yaakov’s approach is based. It is a teaching found in the text and a hagahah-margin gloss; in Rav Chaim Volozhiners Nefesh Hachaim (pp.21, 23).

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

The 60 Second Guide to Yom Kippur

While Rosh Hashanah is focused on G-d’s existence, authority and supervision of the world, Yom Kippur is focused on our role in G-d’s plan for the perfection of humanity.

We’re created half-spiritual and half-physical with a strong ego, so we’re conflicted between doing what is good (spiritual) and what feels (physical) or looks good (ego).

Judaism does not deny us physical or accomplishment pleasures, rather we’re instructed to make these pleasures secondary to a focus on becoming giving, emotionally mature, G-d aware individuals.

However, because the ego and body drives are so strong, we make mistakes and instead of driving towards the long-lasting perfection of our spirit, we pursue short-lasting and often self-destructive physical and ego satisfaction pleasures.

G-d expects that we’ll make mistakes and He gives us the means to self-correct and erase the negative effects of our mistakes on the day of Yom Kippur. In fact Yom Kippur is considered a joyful day and we eat a festive meal before the day begins and one after the fast ends.

To assist us in our self-correction, G-d instructs us to refrain from physical pleasures like eating, bathing and intimate relations and we focus on the greatness of G-d and put our egos on the shelf for a day.

Eliminating our physical and self-centered pleasures gives us the opportunity to introspect, admit and express regret over our limiting self-destructive actions and negative character traits. When accompanied by sincere intent to improve, G-d assists in removing the effects of our mistakes and allocates the resources we need to become the better people we want to be.

May we be successful in using this awesome day to set ourselves on the path of actualizing the greatness each of us possesses.

The Kingship of the Ten Days of Teshuva

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander zt”l in the Rinas Chaim writes about the issue of Kingship after Rosh Hoshana:

“The similarity of issues, which appear in the prayers of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, pointing to Hashem Yisbarach’s kingship and reign, leads us to a question. Why must we bring up the issue of malchus, Hashem’s kingship, on Yom Kippur as well?

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, and the whole concept of judgment is a product of His kingship. Hashem Yisbarach, as the supreme monarch, distributes tasks — and the vehicles necessary for the fulfillment of those individual tasks — to each one of His subjects on Rosh Hashanah. Thus, on the first day of the year, HaKadosh Baruch Hu dons the cloak of the supreme Judge and estimates the quality of each person’s fulfillment of his tasks from the previous year. Those individual tasks are part of the general goal of proclaiming Hashem Yisbarach as King over creation, and over each one of us in particular. Hashem Yisbarach then delegates each person’s task for the coming year according to the level of his performance the year before.

However, due to Hashem’s lovingkindness, the judgment does not end on Rosh Hashanah, but lasts during the subsequent Ten Days of Repentance, during which it is still possible to repent and to amend the final verdict. On each of those ten days we en treat HaKadosh Baruch Hu with the supplications of “Inscribe us in the Book of the Living,” and “In the Book of Life… may we be inscribed before You.”

The whole issue of judgment is maintained within the concept of kingship, as we stated before. We are judged according to what extent we have accepted upon ourselves Hashem Yisbarach’s kingdom in all aspects of our lives, and especially in the fulfillment of our individual tasks. Our judgment also hinges upon the extent that we are prepared spiritually for the holy task of proclaiming Him as King in the forthcoming year. That is why we stress kingship in our prayers during those ten days, saying “the holy King,” and “the King of judgment.” All these ten days are days meant for us to proclaim Hashem as King over us — and our judgment flows from this.

The conclusion of the judgment occurs on Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur it is assessed and established to what extent we are spiritually ready to recognize the reign of our King, the King of all kings — HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Therefore, on Yom Kippur we mention and we seek the acceptance of Malchus Shmayim, the Heavenly kingdom, just as we do on Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur the spiritual task of the entire ten days of proclaiming Hashem King comes to its peak and culminates with the acceptance of Ol Malchus Shmayim at the end of the Ne’ilah prayer.”

Three Things to Keep in Mind on Rosh Hoshanah

1. G-d is the King and Master of the Universe and we, the Jews, are his primary subjects.

2. Make a greater commitment to recognizing G-d as King as often as possible.

3. Resolve to make G-d consciousness real, with increased focus on Torah, kindness, davening and performing mitzvos.

A K’siva V’Chasima Tova to all and a fruitful Rosh Hoshanah to all.

MP3s: Shabbos Project 2014; Securing a Favorable Judgement; Arba Minim; Malchius; Inspiration

Rabbi Welcher on Grabbing the Inspiration can be downloaded here.

Rabbi Welcher on Malchius And The Tefilos Of Rosh_Hoshana can be downloaded here.

Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa on the Shabbos Project at YIKGH on Sept 28th can be downloaded here.

Rabbi Moshe Schwerd on “Securing a Favorable Judgment with a Checkered Past” can be downloaded here.

Rabbi Yair Sandler on Purchasing the Arba Minim – mp3 here.

On Which Day of Rosh Hashana Will You Be Judged?

Rabbi Noson Weisz has a great article on the judgment of Rosh Hoshanah based on the writings of Rabbi Dessler in his work Michtav Mieliyahu.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana God only considers the cases of the people who are sincerely committed to developing themselves spiritually. It is they who offer Him investment opportunities, because it is they who require the renewal of His Kingdom. After carefully assessing the seriousness and feasibility of the proposals that are submitted, He determines the inputs that each individual whose case is being deliberated requires to actualize his ideas in the coming year, and weaves all these individual requirements into a common tapestry and recreates a world that will correspond exactly with the combined requirements.

The cases of all the people who did not pass muster on the first day are judged on the second. After God maps out the dimensions of His new Kingdom on the first day based on the requirements of those who were judged worthy of investment, on the second day He considers all the lives that need to be renewed to make His new Kingdom function.

Even if we focus only on religious requirements the new world requires a large population. The people for whom the world was recreated on the first day need synagogues in which to pray; this means that you will need a quorum of people to be written in the Book of Life even if there is only a single member who passed muster on the first day. They will need Talmudic academies in which to study; a functioning academy must have a large student body, teachers, administrators, maintenance people etc.; hundreds of people can be written into the Book of Life in the merit of the few students who actually require the academy for their spiritual growth. First day people require Kosher food to eat; thousands of people can be written into the Book of Life to make sure that there is a functioning food industry. If you think about it there are literally millions of functions that must be filled in order to keep the spiritual world functioning.

Please go and read the whole article.

The Homework for Rosh Hoshanah

It’s no coincidence that Rosh Hoshanah and the school year start at the same time. Both have the excitement of starting something new. The excitement of a clean slate. The excitement of potential. However, there is one scenario we want to avoid.

“Did everybody do the homework?”

“What homework? Today’s the first day!”

“The summer homework.”

“We had summer homework? I didn’t know that.”

“Everybody knows about the summer homework.”

“Mine must of went into the Spam folder.”

“I’m sorry. The homework was for your benefit. Everybody knew about it. You’ll have to try to compensate.”

The Avodah of Rosh Hoshanah is davening. According to many, the Shofar itself is a form of Tefillah, which is why we blow it during Mussaf. But most of us reading this know Judaism’s little secret – “Davening with kavanna is difficult”. That’s why we need to do our summer homework. And it’s not too late.

That’s why I tell my kids that they should work on saying the first Brocha of Shomoneh Esrai with kavanna during Elul. That’s the summer homework. There’s no excuses. We know it’s Elul. We know that Rosh Hoshanah has lots of davening. If we don’t prepare a little bit, we can’t blame the Spam folder.

If we do our homework for Rosh Hoshanah, we may only get a B-, but at least we can show the Master Teacher that we’re making a sincere effort.

The Season of the Spiritual Growth Mindset

The secular world has recently “discovered” the growth mindset:

Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

The growth mindset is fundamental to a Torah Observant Jew. Every BT and FFB will tell you, that where you are headed in terms of growth, is much more important than where you came from.

One advantage we have in Jewish Spiritual Growth is that the calendar orients us towards times with increased opportunities. Shabbos provides more potential than week days. Yom Tovim provide additional growth opportunities. And the Yomin Noraim provide the greatest opportunities. In Judaism the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is the definitive spiritual growth season.

But as we know, growth takes effort, and Hashem made us a bit lazy, so we are advised to use the entire Elul runway as we approach Rosh Hoshana, the Ten Days of Teshuva, and Yom Kippur.

In the Practical Guide to Teshuva, Rabbi S. Wagschal writes that the process of teshuvah may be successfully achieved if it is performed in a gradual manner. He suggests that we should begin with improving things we are already doing, like tefillah and brachos.

Tomorrow we will provide some practical ways to leverage the enhanced spiritual growth mindset which we have in these days of Elul.

To Feast or to Fast… THAT is the Question!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 It (Yom HaKipurim) is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to you and a day when you must afflict your souls. You must keep this Sabbath from the ninth of the month until the next night.  

-VaYikra 23:32

Chiya bar Rav of Difti taught: “and …you must afflict your souls…[on the] ninth of the month” Do we begin fasting on the ninth?  [In truth] we don’t fast until the tenth! Here, the Torah is teaching us that all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth.

-Yoma 81B

On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict your souls and not do any melacha…This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned to purify you. Before Hashem you will be purified of all your sins.

-VaYikra 16:29, 30

There is a lot of conflicting data on the subject of the Torahs attitude towards asceticism.  On the one hand, Shabbos the basis of sanctified time, is identified with pleasure “And call Sabbath pleasure” (Yeshaya 58:13 ) and the entire chapter of Yeshaya 58 takes a rather dim view of fasting unless it is coupled with social justice. On the other hand, the very holiest time, the Sabbath of Sabbaths is a fast day.  The Nazir, who abstains from the fruit of the vine, is called both holy (BeMidbar 6:8) and sinful (Nedarim 10A) as is one who engages in voluntary fasts (Ta’anis 11A). The place of eternal rewards is called “the Garden of Delights”, but the delights there are of a decidedly non-physical variety; “the righteous sit with their heads crowned and bask in the radiance of the Shechina-the Divine indwelling”

In practical terms this quandary is most pronounced on the 9th and 10th days of Tishrei when the day of feasting that precedes the Day of Atonement and self-denial is reckoned as a day of fasting as well.

The often irresistible lure of this-worldly pleasures is, arguably, the major contributing factor to sin and its concomitant impurities. As such, there is a compelling logic to how abstaining from of this-worldly pleasures would help us attain the contrary outcome of decontamination.  As the Pesukim (VaYikra 16:29, 30) state: “afflict your souls …to purify you! “  However, as Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains, HaShem desires to sublimate everything (in his parlance to “sweeten” everything). Eating and drinking are the general categories under which all the temporal desires and delights fall.  HaShem wants all of these to be sanctified as well.  Holy self-gratification may sound like an oxymoron. But since our only will is to fulfill His will and “we cast that which weighs us down upon Him” He then “sustains us” with spiritual nourishment. (Tehilim 55:23). When we eat on Erev Yom Kippur in order to fulfill HaShems Mitzvah, eating becomes a catalyst for purity identical to the mortifications of Yom Kippur itself.

The Mohn-Manna Bread provides an intriguing precedent for this counterintuitive concept. The Torah states that the Mohn was like a “honey doughnut” (Shemos 16:31). Per Chaza”l diners tasted every flavor that they could imagine emanating from the Mohn (Yoma 75A). Moreover, the clouds that showered down the Mohn sprinkled pearls and jewels as well (ibid). The impression one gets is that the Mohn delighted all the senses. Yet the Torah describes the Mohn experience as one of mortification and affliction (Devarim 8:2, 3). Cognizant of the one-day-only supply of Mohn we can well imagine the anxious longing with which the Jews in the wilderness anticipated its daily arrival. The take away lesson for all generations of Jews from this Hedonistic-Ascetic hodgepodge is that we should yearn for HaShems salvation and be totally reliant on Him for both the eating and the abstention from eating. The feasting and the fasting are both only done to fulfill His will.

The verse: “Before Hashem you will purified of all your sins” implicitly alludes to Erev Yom Kippur. “Before HaShem” meaning feasting on the day before HaShem’s great and awesome day, Yom Kippur, will purify and decontaminate of your souls just as the fasting on Yom Kippur itself does.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen,  taught that whenever a Jew consumes food as a Mitzvah the food contains the flavor of Mohn which is the bread of the ministering angels and, as such, it is the flavor of other-worldly pleasure, the taste  of the radiance of the Shechina.  The topic of Mohn appears in the chapter entitled Yom HaKipurim in tractate Yoma because Mohn consumption is exactly like fasting on Yom Kippur the point of both activities being to experience spiritual gratification by absconding from the temporal pleasures of the physical world. When the Gemara says “all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth“  it is not because eating on the 9th  is like fasting but rather because fasting on the 10th is a different kind of eating, a spiritual angelic ingestion.  On Yom Kippur we dress, stand, go barefoot and wear white like angels.  We fast and are at peace with one another like angels. On Erev Yom Kippur we eat like the nullivore angels dining on “the grain of heaven and the bread of the mighty” (Tehilim78: 24, 25).

 Adapted from Toras Emes Erev Yom Kippur 5625-1865 A.C.E. (page 57)

and Machshevos Chorutz 12 (page 95)

Rebbetzin Heller on Approaching the Viduy on Yom Kippur

Adapted from a recent newsletter article by Rebbetzin Heller

Keep in mind that Hashem accepts you with all of your faults and broken pieces, you needn’t act as if they don’t exist.

Review the viduy before Yom Kippur in the machzor.
Don’t fall into any of the usual traps when you read the list of potential sins that you may have done:
1. What a great list. It’s even alphabetical. How interesting. I think I did everything.
2. I am doomed. I think I’ll go out for pizza. This is too heavy.
3. My life is a mess. It can’t be fixed. No one who had a childhood like mine will ever be clean on the inside.
4. This is extreme. I’m basically a good person. What’s all this breast-beating good for?
5. I hate myself.

Instead, come to grips with the reality of imperfection. If you’re human, you’re imperfect. You have the chance now to open yourself up to greater and higher movement towards being the person you want to be. Every breath you take is a gift from the One who wants to (and can!) understand you totally. Read the list with the same sort of feeling you would have if you were discussing a heartbreaking issue with your therapist. You want to change, that’s why you’re there.

There is one critical difference. Your therapist can only help you hear yourself. Hashem can help you discover a self that you may never have encountered (or may have thought was lost). If you open yourself even a little bit, He will open His Heart to you beyond your greatest hope.

Don’t be Bailed Out. Be Vindicated!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

-For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

G-d’s angel called to him from heaven and said “Avraham, Avraham’!  Do not put forth your hand towards the youth (i.e. do not harm him) for now I know that you fear G-d as you have not withheld your only son from Me.   

-Bereshis 22:11,12

And today, recall with mercy the binding of Yitzchok on behalf of his offspring. Blessed are you Hashem who recollects the covenant.

-Conclusion of the Zichronos blessing- Rosh Hashanah Musaf Service

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah the Torah reading is the Akeda– The binding of Yitzchok. The Meforshim explain that this in order to evoke the merit stockpiled by the Patriarchs at this seminal event in Jewish History. The legacy of this merit will help us, their offspring, be more likely to be adjudicated favorably on this Holy Day of Judgment. Per the Talmud and Rav Saadiya Gaon the Akeda is among the reasons underpinning the Mitzvah of Shofar and, in particular, the use of a ram’s horn to fulfill the Mitzvah as Avaraham ultimately sacrificed a ram in a burnt-offering as a surrogate for Yitzchok.

Conventional wisdom maintains that of the two patriarchs involved it was Avraham who played the pivotal role in earning the incalculable merit of the Akeda by withstanding daunting, superhuman challenges to his faith in a kind Creator, his life’s work in disseminating a theology predicated on that faith, his defining characteristic of Chesed-lovingkindness in general and, in particular, his unprecedented and peerless love for Yitzchok.

Rav Gershon Henoch, the Radzyner Rebbe takes a decidedly different approach maintaining that while Yitzchok may have been relatively passive his was the predominant role in shaping the everlasting impact of the Akeda.

HaShem is omniscient and exists above and beyond time.  As such when His spokesbeing the angel stayed Avrahams slaughtering knife at the last moment categorically admonishing him “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” HaShem was doing far more than providing the individual person Yitzchok with a stay of execution and a new lease on life. He was giving his Divine seal of approval on the life of Yitzchok AND on the lives of all the souls that would issue from Yitzchok.  The life and lifework of each and every Jew, each and every human being who can be described as the offspring of Yitzchok, received HaShems imprimatur when the Divine voice reverberated through the angel and decreed “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” . When HaShem issued this decree the Divine Mind was perfectly and infallibly aware of all the future generations about whom He’d assured Avraham “It is (only) through Yitzchok that you will gain posterity”(Bereshis21:12). The conception, birth and ongoing existence of every single Jew who was ever born or who will ever be born, down to the last generation, are thus firmly rooted in the Divine will.

Consider, says the Radzyner, the enormity of what this implies. Sin, ruin, hazards and stumbling blocks are inconsistent with the Divine will. So with the words “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” HaShem affirmed that no sin, ruin, hazards or stumbling blocks can stem from any Jew. Otherwise a strong claim of injustice, K’vyachol, could be lodged against HaShem. After all, Avraham had already given Yitzchok up.  Yitzchok  had been elevated as a sacrifice. He was no longer of this world.  He was as good as dead.  Yet HaShem, in effect, resurrected a corpse that had not yet fathered children. Had it been possible for any sin etc. to result from this future offspring why would an omniscient transcendent G-d have reinstated Yitzchoks existence?

Accordingly the concept of invoking the merit of the Akeda is about much more than a wayward child who’s run afoul of the law drawing on the deep pockets of his mega-rich and politically well-connected father to bail him out for the umpteenth time. The merit of the Akeda inheres in it demonstrating, against all apparent evidence to the contrary, that the wayward child never ran afoul of the law in the first place.  Thundering across time and space the Akeda admonishes one and all “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth”! It is the quintessence of exoneration through merciful justice that overturns the sentence of nonexistence and validates the life of all of Yitzchok’s offspring on this Holy Day of Judgment.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy (or any other) that superficially asks HaShem to remember, recall or recollect is troubling. For the transcendent Creator memory cannot possibly mean the cognitive bridge connecting the no-longer-existent with the present as it does for His temporal creatures. Instead concludes the Radzyner, “recalling with mercy the binding of Yitzchok on behalf of his offspring” means that through the Akeda it is within the grasp and recollection of every Jew to gaze into the depths of his heart and the inner recesses of his memory to behold how he is rooted in, and bound up with, the Divine Will.

Adapted from Sod Yesharim Rosh HaShanah Chapter 77 (page 84)

The Ramchal and How the Shofar Draws Down Mercy

The Elucidated Derech Hashem is an amazing work in which Rabbi Abba Zvi Naiman brings down many footnotes from the other works of the Ramchal to explain the concepts in Derech Hashem.

In regards to the mercy invoked when the Shofar is blown, Rabbi Naiman explains, based on Derech Hashem and other works of the Ramchal:

1) The Shofar invokes the merit of the Forefathers, specifically the Akeida (Zichronos)

2) The Shofar strengthens the forces of good over evil as it did at Sinai when the Jewish people reached the state of Adam before the sin (Shofaros)

3) With the proper intent on our part, the Shofar evokes Hashem’s guidance of the world through His Sovereignty and Oneness, instead of through our short-falling deeds (Malchuyos)

You Don’t Desire? Then Yearn to Desire!

An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

For the Mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not beyond your grasp or remote from you…Rather it is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can accomplish it.’  

-Devarim 30: 11, 14

While the closeness of “the Mitzvah” is described as being in our hearts and mouths it is not said to be in our hands. Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, draws an essential lesson about the limitations of human free will from this omission. The precedent for this lesson can be found in the Torahs dissimilar narratives of Avraham Avinus leitmotif.

The hospitality Chesed that Avraham Avinu offered to human travelers is well documented in Chazal and yet in the Written Torah there is only the scantest allusion to it (VaYeetah Eishel-Bereshis 21:33).  In marked contrast the hospitality that he extended to the three angels is described in great detail in the Written Torah.  This is especially odd inasmuch as the Angels were only pretending to eat, drink and rest and needed neither the physical rest and recreation provided to them nor the monotheistic lessons that diners at Avraham Avinus table learned. Avraham genuinely wanted to do kindness to the angels just as he did to all of his visitors. But in reality he did not provide for any of the needs of these special guests.  His desire to do Chesed went unrealized. But the Torah places the greatest emphasis precisely on the episode of desired Chesed, in which no actual Chesed took place.

In truth all that HaShem demands of us, all that is really within the parameters of our autonomy and freedom, is our will, our wants, our desire to do good as expressed in our hearts and our mouths. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106B says:  HaKadosh Baruch Hu Leeba Boyee –HaShem wants the heart. Whereas the actual realization of our good will, wants and desires, the actual execution of the Mitzvah comes about only through Seyata DiShmaya,-Divine assistance.  As our posuk says; the Mitzvah… is very close to you…in your mouth and in your heart. However you will need HaShems help so that you can accomplish it.’

L’Dovid HaShem Ohree V’Yishee  is the “anthem” of the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. In it we find the problematic verse (Tehilim 27:4) “One thing have I asked of HaShem,  I will ask it; that I may dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of HaShem , and to inspect  His palace.” Once the Meshorer-Psalmist declared that “One thing have I asked of HaShem” why not continue immediately with what is being asked for?  “that I may dwell in the house of al HaShem all the days of my life etc. “ Why repeat “I will ask it”? The blatant, superfluous redundancy of the posuk demands a clarification.

The Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa) explains that what the Meshorer has asked of HaShem is NOT to dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of his life but that dwelling in the house of  HaShem become his fondest desire, truly the one thing that he seeks, asks and prays for. He is asking to ask, desiring to desire, wanting to want.  The one thing that I have asked of HaShem is that Ohsah Ahvakesh…that this/it is what I will ask and pray for.

Our hearts are not always in the right place. Perhaps when we were young, or young in our Judaism, as long as we were shtaiging-progressing in our spiritual lives we could get by with very little materially. Even in our youths it is rare that dwelling in the house of HaShem all the days of our lives is our one and only request and desire. Instead it is just one, albeit a major one, of our many desires, wants and needs. Then setbacks, disillusionments, disappointments, societal and family pressures all conspired to distort our value systems and rearrange our fondest dreams and desires. We may have become more interested in maintaining and amplifying our creature comforts and financial security than in finishing Sha”s, davening ecstatically or creating a new Chesed organization that would alleviate the suffering of hundreds. In a word, we are no longer sincerely asking to dwell in the house of HaShem at all. So, whether young or old, during these days of Divine Mercy in particular we echo the prayer of the Meshorer twice daily. We ask to ask nothing else, desire to desire exclusively, want to want monomaniacally all that is good, kind, holy and exalted.

The Kohen of Lublin amplifies the Rebbe Reb Binims reading of Pslam 27. It is not that the Meshorer was trying to avoid overplaying his hand in prayer by asking to actually dwell in the house of HaShem etc. or just “having an off day”. It is that, truth be told, we can never ask for more than correct, ethical and holy yearnings.  The exercise of our free will is limited to what we want and desire and does not extend to what we do and accomplish. The mitzvah is in our hearts and mouths.  The actualization of Mitzvahs is HaShems domain, not that of human beings.

Adapted from Pri Tzadik Parshas VaYera Paragraph 10 (Page 29A)

Back to School: Rosh Hoshana’s Coming!

There’s a famous segulah from the sefer Nefesh HaChaim that one who is in danger should intensely concentrate on the pusuk “Ein Od Milvado”. If he does this and thereby thinks, without interruption, how Ha-Shem controls every situation, he will merit help from above. (There’s an equally famous story with the Brisker Rav about this.) Similarly, says Rav Mattisyahu Solomon, there is a segulah of having a favorable judgement for the year if we intensely concentrate on the psukim of Malchius (Kingship) in the Rosh HaShana mussaf tefillah. This is our way of expressing our belief that Ha-Shem is King and everything happens only because of Him. But we really need to concentrate, without our worries interrupting us, and Ha-Shem judges us that day to what extent we can do this.

It’s quite hard. How do you concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds? Even in the middle of learning and davening, thoughts pop in and out of our heads about this worry and that situation, and we try to catch ourselves, sometimes without success.

Our job in Elul, says the Lakewood Mashgiach, is to practice. The studying is now, and the exam is on Rosh HaShana. Whenever we have the opportunity (which is really most of the day), stop and think about how Ha-Shem is running everything. When we bentch, when we are writing out checks, while at the doctor. And, of course, when interacting with others.

The school year has begun, and the load of stress which comes with it. Children wake up late, don’t do their homework, perhaps they don’t know what their assignment is. They are exhausted at the end of the long day, and throw their bags somewhere, and just want something to eat, or maybe just run out to play. Sometimes we lack patience with them, and raise our voices. Perhaps the teacher seems unfair, or loads them up with homework (which means YOUR homework), and why didn’t she tell me before that my kid was having problems? And we lose whatever patience remained.

But Ha-Shem runs the world. It’s time to practice, and this is the function of Elul. Let’s try, for at least two seconds a day, to be more patient, not raise our voices, judge favorably (all in two seconds?) and think that Ha-Shem is the King. If we do this often enough, when we get to the test on Rosh Hashana, we can merit a good judgement for ourselves and our families.

Originally Published on Sept 26, 2011

Post YK Reflections

By Jak

One of the strangest things that hit me this year leading up to Yom Kippur, was that this was only the 3rd Yom Kippur where I would be defined as “shomer shabbat”. Only 2 years ago I started? It seems like forever that I’ve been “frum.” It’s amazing how in such a short time I’ve grown so much, and how I view certain things so differently.

Just a few years ago,Yom Kippur was the day I couldn’t eat and had to spend long boring hours in shul. Sure there was the aspect of Teshuva and forgiveness but is basically came down to being tired and hungry. This year in the preparation leading up to Yom Kippur I hardly even thought about the food. I’ve come to realise that fasting on Yom Kippur is merely a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. It’s a day about cleanisng ourselves, about removing all the physical and wordly distractions and reaching the elevated level of angels, of that ultimate Devekut between the Neshama and HaKadosh Baruch Hu – the closest we can get in this world anyway.

And it’s such a great feeling to look back and know that except for the half-hour break during the day’s Tefillah I hardly thought about food, didn’t really get tired or wish to sit down. Instead I was concentrating fully (almost) on the heartbreaking viduy – the neverending list of mistakes I made during the year, and the thing that makes it so painful – the potential for closeness, for the greatest relationship I could wish for, if I would just play my part.

In one sense, having been a “ba’al teshuvah” for a substantail period of time makes the whole Teshuvah process a little bit harder to get into. I look back and remember how 2 years ago I was confessing about things like driving on shabbat, eating blatanlty non-Kosher food and other “biggies”. It’s tempting to look at how far I’ve come and say “You know you’re not so bad anymore. Everything you do is basically ok.” But of course that’s the advice of the Yetser Hara. The fact that I know so much more now means I have an even higher level of responsibility and there are so many things I don’t do now that I didn’t even know about back then (Bittul Torah is a striking example)

I heard from one of my Rabbis an explanation of the pasuk “Kaveh el Hashem, chazak veya’ametz libecha vekaveh el Hashem” along these lines, based on the Sfat Emet. He said it’s easy for a person to get to Rosh Hashanah and think to himself, “You know, I’m basically OK. I keep most mitzvot, I learn every day, I come to Tefillah on time, I treat my friends pretty well. Sure, Rambam wrote 10 perakim of Hilchot Teshuvah, Ramchal wrote Mesillat Yesharim, R’ Yonah wrote Sha’arei Teshuvah, but they weren’t meant for me. The guy who sits behind me in the Bet Midrash, now HE needs help but I’m doing ok.” Forget it. You’ve still got to work to do. Even if you have done Teshuva and raised yourself up now’s not the time to give yourself a pat on the back. Chazak veya’ametz libecha… veKaveh el Hashem. Even more!!

Yom Kippur is definitely a day of emotional contrasts. On the one hand, it’s a unique opportunity to start afresh, to wipe out all the black marks, remove all the stains and begin the year ahead, atoned for, cleansed and pure. On the other hand, the recognition of just how low we’ve fallen is nothing less than tragic.

I think this contrast plays itself out most poignantly in the tefillot of Mussaf. The piyyut of the avodah describing the Kohen Gadol and the entire ceremony performed in the Beit HaMikdash comes to a climax with a song describing the simcha and majesty at the end of the day when the Kohen Gadol, having emerged from the Kodesh Kodashim unscathed, exited the Beit HaMikdash and returned home amidst a scene of great celebration. As we sang and clapped, I thought of the story of the Gemara of how Alexander the Great got off his horse and bowed down to Shimon HaTsaddik – how majestic the appearance of the Kohen Gadol must have been. And more than that, standing in Yeshivat HaKotel we were just a few metres away from where it all happened. (The fact that I had learned the mishnayot of Yoma this year and understood the whole sequence of the avodah also helped matters) At this point we were right there in the Beit HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, after the sa’ir hamishtaleach had been sent away, the korbanot has been brought, the blood sprinkled, incense offered up, Kohen Gadol emerged from the Kodesh Kodashim unscathed, and all of Israel’s sins atoned for. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And then with a flip of one page in the machzor, I was brought back down to the ground. It felt like those great men who composed our Tefillot were saying to me – remember what we had, go back in time and really live it, but before you head gets stuck too high in the clouds, come back down to reality. Put your feet back down on the ground. Look outside the window and see what’s on Har HaBayit today. Look at how far we have fallen. As I read along with the piyyutim comparing the avodah we had just read about to our present woeful state it didn’t take very long for my eyes to start welling up with tears. And at the end of that section came the Ten Martyrs. If that’s not enough to bring somebody to tears I’m not sure what is.

Something else that made this past Yom Kippur an incredible experience was the fact that I was davening in a Yeshiva and not a shul. For the first time it wasn’t a case of looking over my shoulder every few minutes wondering how people would look at me if I started crying, praying silently for too long, or screaming for mercy too loud. I was in an environment where everybody was really in the right mood – they weren’t there because they had to be, because it was the long, boring, hungry day in shul, but because they wanted to be there – and were cherishing the rare opportunity for that renewal of the relationship with their Creator.

How strange it is to think that just a few years ago I stood all day waiting for Yom Kippur to end, now only a few minutes after Havdalah, I was already looking forward to next year.

I guess in a sense the real work begins only after Yom Kippur. On that day the Kedusha is inate, there’s special assistance from Above and it’s pretty easy to do everything right. But once it’s over and we get back to all our creature comforts, it’s a little bit harder not to fall back into all the cracks we’ve slipped through during the year. Hopefully I’ll get to next Yom Kippur and just afew of those Viduys will be a little less relevant.

Originally Posted Oct 09, 2006

Ten Ways to Help Your Children Have a More Meaningful Yomin Noraim

1. Explain to your children how Hashem actively seeks ways to forgive, and will forgive them – even if the best they can do is want to do teshuva.

2. Remind them that Yiddishkeit is not all-or-nothing – that their aveiros do not invalidate their mitzvos or diminish Hashem’s love.

3. Model the virtue of personal growth by sharing your own goals to improve a particular mitzvah or middah, or by working to improve something together with your children.

4. Urge them to privately recall something they wish they could undo, and reassure them that now is their opportunity to erase whatever they regret.

5. Share your personal stories of Hashgacha Pratis with your children to demonstrate Hashem’s direct involvement in your family’s day-to-day lives.

6. Encourage your children to focus on two or three things they truly appreciate as constant reminders of Hashem’s benevolence in their own lives.

7. Sincerely ask your children for mechilah during the Yomim Noraim to teach that everyone can make mistakes, and are equally worthy of being forgiven.

8. Suggest they undertake a small goal to improve their Yiddishkeit with reassurance that the most proper and effective way to grow is through small, obtainable steps of self-improvement.

9. Make a special effort during the Yomin Noraim to model Hashem’s middah of patience, compassion and forgiveness in your interactions with your spouse and children.

10. Show your children they are the center of your world. Postpone a meeting or ignore a phone call to make time for them so they’ll feel cherished and can comprehend that Hashem, too, considers them the center of His world.

For for more information about Priority-1’s training programs, resources and consultations for parents and educators, please call 800-33-FOREVER or visit http://www.priority-1.org

Rosh Hoshana: Committing to the Plan

Rosh Hoshana is almost here and the focus of the day is on the creation of the world and on Hashem as our Melech or King. How is this different then the creation we recognize every Shabbos? Secondly, how are we to understand this concept of Malchus or Kingship, and how is it different from the Malchus we accept twice a day when we say Shema?

Shabbos is focused on the initial creation of the world. We recognize Hashem as the creator of the physical world and the fact that creation was completed on the seventh day. Rosh Hoshana is focused on the creation of the plan for the world. According to the Ramchal, the plan is that G-d created a world where His presence would be hidden to some degree, and the world needs to strive to clearly recognize His presence and absolute control of the world. The key obstacles for developing that awareness is our own sense of self and control.

On Rosh Hoshana we recognize the plan, clarify the plan, and renew our wholehearted committment to it. A key component is the recognition of the Planner Himself, because in the plan of the creation, the King and our recognition of Him is intrinsic. The Kingship we accept on Rosh Hoshana is the recognition of the force behind the plan and his absolutely central role in all aspects of the plan. In the Shema we commit to the service that comes in the wake of the acceptance of the plan.

Every year when we recognize and recommit, we have the opportunity to redefine our role. The King stands ready to assist us in fulfilling the role which we can shape to some degree. This assistance takes the form of judgment.

Imagine a CEO who always did right by you. He tells you that next week you’ll have your yearly review, where your role will be assessed, your commitment measured, and you’ll receive constructive criticism on how to achieve your personal success. Any smart person would welcome that meeting, and prepare by exhibiting awareness of their deficiencies coupled with improvement strategies.

This is the self judgment of Rosh Hoshana, recognizing what we need to do to fulfill our role properly. When we perform this self-judgment properly, the King accepts our self-assessment. Put in its proper perspective, this judgment can be filled with joy as we anticipate with excitement our renewed commit to a deep and meaningful life.

Rabbi Dessler says that the first day of Rosh Hoshana is judgment for those fully committed to having a key role, while the second day is for those who will assist those who are fully committed. The first day is the performance review for the executives, with the second day is for the worker bees. This is an opportunity for all of us to join the executive class.

Although Rosh Hoshana is one of the ten days of Teshuva, we don’t perform the key ingredient of viduy (confession) on that day. Perhaps the reason is that to really do Teshuva properly (with regret and commitment to the future), we need to be very clear on the overall plan and our chosen role. On Rosh Hoshana we define the parameters of our Teshuva through our re-committment. On the days through Yom Kippur we start actualizing our role by working on our deficiencies through the full process of Teshuva.

It’s an awesome day with great potential for a bright new beginning. May we all merit to take full advantage of the opportunities it brings.

PS – Here’s a link for 3 Rosh Hoshana shiurim.

Before “Beyond”: Home for the Holidays

This essay was originally published before blogging existed or almost anyone had ever heard of the Internet. It was the first installment in what was a regular column called “On the Road… Back” in what turned out to be a short-lived weekly newspaper called the New Jersey Jewish Post. This column was entitled, “Home For The Holidays.”

And, please be kind. I was… very young, even for me: The date of this column is September 5, 1988.

As summer ebbs and the nights turn cool and crisp, Jewish families share many of the same concerns as other families. Children return to school, or, in the case of older children, head off — maybe for that first exciting time — to college. Jewish families, though, also think of this time of year as heralding the approach of “the Holidays,” which usually entails a pause in the back-to-school routine and, in the case of young people going out-of-town, an all-too-brief (for the parents, anyway!) return home to celebrate the High Holidays together.

It was around this time of year that my parents had sent me, their oldest, off to college, and the excitement was palpable for all of us. Though the school was only perhaps 15 miles from my par-ents’ home, it could have been a thousand. I was living on my own for the first time, and thrown into an environment — an entire world — for which nothing in my previous eighteen years could have prepared me.

My college was not the kind of place you send your child if broadening his Jewish horizons is foremost in your mind. The school’s reputation for academic distinction was second only to its renown as a bastion of “WASP elitism,” and much of the allure of it was the stamp of approval it provided for upward mobility in non-Jewish society — a guarantee of future “success.” Nonetheless, my parents, who had always endeavored to provide my brother and me with a strong “Jewish identity,” were concerned that we should have Jewish friends at college and hoped especially for a Jewish roommate. Imagine my surprise — and their wary amazement — upon learning that my roommate in this Ivy League citadel was an orthodox boy, also from New Jersey, who kept Shabbat and Kashrut and attended the on-campus minyan hours before I would even begin to stir from my bed.

I had never really known an orthodox person before, and it would be a mistake to say we hit it right off. He was somewhat aloof — maybe a little “yeshivish” I thought— and I was something of a rock-and-roller. (We would later become good friends and lived together for two more years.) In a matter of weeks, though, my eyes were opened to how a person—let’s call him Moshe—lived a distinctive and proud Jewish life in the very heart of assimilation. My growing respect for him wasn’t hurt by the fact that he was extraordinarily bright, from the top of his yeshiva high school class, with a very strong science background and near-perfect board scores. Surely this was not a throwback to the Dark Ages as I had expected!

As the Yomim Tovim rolled around, I asked my roommate if he was going to go home for the “High Holidays,” as I was. He answered me with a remark which never left me, but which took me years and years to begin to understand. “High Holidays?” he asked. In a patient, earnest way, he said, “Actually, there isn’t really any day that’s ‘holier’ than Shabbat.”

I was completely taken aback. I had just never thought of Shabbat that way. Shabbat was not part of my life. Saturday was the day we went down to the stadium and watched the Big Game against Yale. But planted in my head throughout that Yom Tov season was this idea of having a “holy day” every week.

Years later, when I was studying in yeshiva myself — partly as a result of the consciousness-raising” I received from three years with Moshe — I would finally taste Shabbat and learn what it meant for a day to be “holy.” Once a week I put on my best clothes, shine my shoes, dine festively, sing my heart out, pray and hear the Torah read in synagogue. Even more than the way I left college behind when I came “home for holidays,” I leave the material world behind without even “going” anywhere.

And yet paradoxically, the Yomim Tovim did not lose significance when I made Shabbat part of my life. Rosh Hashana was not diminished by losing its status as the prime “Jewish time of the year,” even though it now had to share its status as “the holidays,” not only with my old friend Yom Kippur, but also with Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. On the contrary, consciousness of the Jewish year — of the cycles starting with daily prayers, to the Shabbat-centered week, to the celebration of Rosh Chodesh every month, and even beyond years to shmitta years and the like — enhanced my appreciation of the festivals. And by hooking up with my heritage, I learned that “time” is not only in the future but has preceded me as well.

Now, rather than a short detour back on the trip away from my Jewish home, on the way to the seductive world of assimilation, the Yomim Tovim are an annual celebration that take place among the constant affirmations of what it means to be a Jew. Celebrating the festivals is no longer an incongruity for me but the logical culmination of day-to-day Jewish life. Only a couple of months into college, I’d learned more than many of us would take away even after four years, though it would take me that much time to realize what Moshe had been saying on that bright autumn day.