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.

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)

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

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 parents’ 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 experienced 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.

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.

Poetry of Repentance

Only when I began to study Paradise Lost, John Milton’s epic re-writing of Genesis, did it to occur to me that being religious was not a sign of neurosis or flaky otherworldliness. In graduate school at Oxford and later at Columbia, for me and many of my fellow Jewish students, Milton was a safe way, without the risk of embarrassment, of experiencing the poetry of a religious sensibility. In earnest discussions of Christian redemptive history, the relationship between free will and divine providence, I lived, through Milton, the possibility of religious engagement.

I may have been able to suspend my disbelief about Christian theology, but when it came to the Jewish High Holidays, I preferred going to the West End Bar on Broadway to returning to my parents’ Long Island Temple. If I were lucky, the assistant rabbi would give a sermon resonating with my graduate school politics. But the public spectacle of repentance, the responsive reading, the instructions – ‘please rise,’ ‘be seated,’ ‘turn to page 374’ – was distant from the inner voice I had been cultivating through reading Shakespeare, Donne and Keats. Turning worship into political activism may have satisfied my social conscience, but it made repentance into something external, a way to avoid myself.

For us, today, the question of repentance, of teshuva or literally ‘return’ to a more authentic self, unblemished by past habits and misdeeds, may be even more vexed. Our knowledge of the complexities of psychic history – of transgressions, dysfunction caused by trauma, and obstinate devotion to self-destructive behavior – may make repentance seem an unrealizable fantasy. Further, an enlightened conception of the self as creative, not merely passive, makes us skeptical about miraculous atonement activated through divine intervention.

Yet the Talmudic sage, Reish Lakish, says:

Great is teshuva, for deliberate transgressions are accounted meritorious deeds; as the Prophet Ezekiel says, ‘when the wicked man shall turn from his wickedness and do that which is lawful and right – through them he shall live.’

Through them – transgressions – ‘he shall live’? To understand the paradoxical words of the sage – for me, it was a matter of granting him as much credit as I did Milton – requires a different suspension of disbelief, starting with a notion of time.

For Shakespeare’s Macbeth, there is only the ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ of successive moments leading the ‘way to dusty death.’ Macbeth’s time is now popularized on t-shirts, in paraphrase, ‘stuff happens.’ Teshuva, however, is based upon a different sense of time, and the High Holidays, starting with the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, challenge us to see our histories – as a people and as individuals – in the shape of coherent stories. In the cosmic history described in the Rosh Hashanah service, the sounding of the shofar marks the beginning and ending of Jewish history, as well as the significant middle. Heard through the Rosh Hashanah prayers, the shofar-blasts resonate with the first breath inspirited by God into man at the Creation, the sounds of the shofar on Mount Sinai, and the shofar-blast that marks the end of time. Through this story, the present is no longer merely part of a chain of unrelated moments – ‘tomorrow and tomorrow’ – but infused with the knowledge of the future when the shofar announces the redemption of humanity.

This consciousness of time makes repentance on Yom Kippur possible. Not only does the nation have a sense of an ideal future, so too does every person – in which time-future connects back with time-present as well as time-past. Through the retrospective glance of repentance, past history – now not just neurotic obsessions weighing down the self – can be redeemed. But teshuva is not a divine fiat, nor a human one. For repentance is creative, an active process of integration, bringing together the diverse parts of the self.

So important is repentance, the Talmudic sages say, that God created teshuva before Creation, allowing for the unconventional story-telling that undoes normal cause and effect. Past actions do not bring about future events, but the ideal of an unrealized future re-creates the past so that a different outcome is possible. But though I may regret past deeds, indeed, in some cases must, I also acknowledge that I am who I am now because of who I once was. My imagined future was generated by my desires and, this is the sage’s insight, even my transgressions.

Atonement may be a divine gift, but one requiring the courage to acknowledge that the past, no matter how seemingly recalcitrant – no matter how ‘damaged’ I may feel – is mine to transform. The repentance that is transformative is an ‘act of love’ for only by accepting the self, however daunting a prospect that may be, are transgressions turned into a source of life. When repentance comes out of fear of punishment, and the past is merely renounced, transgressions are made null, but the self remains unchanged. But repentance based upon love works because intentions and actions, never simple, are open to reframing. The story I tell now reveals that the past about which I feel regret, perhaps even shame, is not only consistent with, but propels me towards a future I had not yet imagined.

‘No one,’ the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes, ‘can be better at living your life than you.’ But we find excuses in the personae we adopt – sometimes our public political and even religious commitments – to avoid who we are, and who we want to be. Repentance neither means neurotic fixation on past failure nor avoidance of aspects of ourselves we prefer to ignore. Nor does it mean believing in external rituals that guarantee purification.

Teshuva does mean a commitment to living our lives, and a faith that the stories we tell can give both past and present a new voice. Not a vicarious engagement, teshuva permits cultivating the poetry of a personal religious sensibility – starting with our own rewriting of beginnings (finding signs of life in transgression, trauma and loss), continuing in the reinvention of the present, and opening, finally, to the possibility of a different future.

Originally posted on Aish.Com

Get Moving

Sometimes you hear something short and to the point and it motivates you. My daughter sent me an email with the following short moshel:

There are a group of boys playing in the street. A bus pulls up and stops. The bus driver honks his horn because he needs to get through. The boys don’t flinch. They continue playing ball as if the bus doesn’t even exist. The bus driver honks again. The boys look up and, almost in unison, shout “We heard you!”. The bus driver replies “It’s not enough to hear me, you also have to move.”

It’s not enough to hear great and inspiring droshas and profound insights. You also have to move. Take a step, a small step. Get moving.

Share a SHORT insight or story for YK in the comments. G’mar Tov.

Taking Back Last Year’s Neilah

One Yom Kippur, in his drashah right before the Neilah prayer, our rav gave a short but powerful speech. He started off with a tragic narrative of a family that lo aleinu lost a child in a fire. Then he spoke about “taking back last year’s Neilah.” If someone had been through a painful year, he/she might wish with all of his/her heart the power to take back last year’s Neilah and really daven with extra special kavanah, The rav said, “Next year we might regret doing only lip service for this year’s Neilah. So make this year’s Neilah really count. Daven with extra kavanah so that next year you won’t want to take back this year’s Neilah.”

I have tremendous respect for my shul’s Rav, a brilliant man, totally frum Jew and eloquent speaker. Yet I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” more than a little bit chilling.

I haven’t read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, about the horrible year when she lost her husband (and later her only child). From the reviews and comments that I have read, magical thinking or wishful thinking is a kind of self-delusion that one somehow has the power to influence events through unconnected actions, sort of along the line of, “If I wear my Jets jersey to every home game, the Jets will win the Super Bowl,” or more importantly, “If I pray and give charity, then my close relative will recover from his/her terminal illness.”

Of course, an Orthodox Jew does engage in some of this thinking, it’s part of our Emunah. We’ve all heard the saying, “Tzedakah tatzil Maves,” charity saves from death; also the famous line from the Yoraim Noraim tefillos about how “Teshuva, Tefillah, Tzedakah” can cancel the evil decrees against us. But as a noted rebbetzin once said, “G-d is not a waiter to whom we can give orders.” A beloved rabbi, the rebbetzin’s husband, was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. Despite the outpouring of sincere prayers and tzedakah given on his behalf, the rabbi was niftar only weeks later. Should that shake our Emunah? We continue to pray and give charity when someone is ill, but don’t we already realize that sometimes we will not get the answer we want?

There is a story in the Agadita of the Gemara of two men who were about to die by hanging. (Sorry, I don’t remember the masechta and daf: if someone else can supply it, I would be grateful). Both men, about to die, offered up a prayer. One man’s prayer was granted (the rope snapped and he was saved) and the other man died. There is a machlokes as to whether the man who died offered up a “sincere” prayer, but then what is a “sincere” prayer? The Gemara seems to indicate that the man who lived had true Bitachon that his prayer would be successful. That only leads to more questions – the man who died lacked Bitachon? What does “faith in Gd” and “trust in Gd” really mean, especially to someone facing illness or death? Does he really need to believe that everything will be turn out to be Bseder and OK and wonderful?

I find the concept of “taking back last year’s Neilah” ironic because bli ayin harah, I had a very good year this past year 5770 in many important ways, yet I don’t remember having davened such a special Neilah last Yom Kippur. Maybe I should say to Gd, in a more august and respectful manner of course, “Let’s have another one just like the other one,” if only I knew how. Then those of you who had sadly not such a great past year might protest, “I davened such a meaningful Neilah last year, why did G-d give me those painful difficulties in 5770?”

In reality, there is no way to “take back last year’s Neilah,” any more than we can take back a car accident or stop a disastrous past choice. Perhaps the Rav was referring to having foresight almost as keen as our 20/20 hindsight, to be able to daven this year’s Neilah with as much Kavanah as if we really did (and do) have the power to prevent bad things from happening in our lives.

A Must Read for Rosh Hashana

I think this is one of the most important articles to read in preparation for Rosh Hashana: Why Judgement – By Rabbi Noson Weisz

An excerpt:

INVESTMENTS VERSUS REWARDS

The very first point that must be emphasized is that contrary to popular belief, Rosh Hashana is not about reward and punishment. The Talmud informs us that mitzvot cannot be rewarded in this world (Kiddushin 39b). The commentators explain that the physical world simply does not have the resources to deliver the amount of joy required to compensate the performance of even a single Mitzvah.

Only people who do not have the merit to make it to the World to Come are written into the Book of Life to compensate them for their past good deeds; we certainly hope that none of us are in this position, The conclusion: when we stand before God and pray for a good life in the coming year, we are not asking Him to provide it fo rus as a reward.

But if the judgment we face on Rosh Hashana does not concern reward, what exactly is being weighed? According to Rabbi Dessler, the model we should study as an aid to understanding the deliberations of the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashana is an economic investment model; the judgments of Rosh Hashana are the heavenly equivalents of earthly investment policy decisions. On Rosh Hashana it is decided how much Divine energy God will invest in the world in general and in our own lives in particular in the course of the coming year.

Please read the whole thing.