Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A personal relationship with Gd

[Note: I've discussed this theme somewhat in my columns on “Avoiding the appearance of showmanship” and "Is religion private if your family sees you?, and in a derashah on Private Religion and Public Religion.]

Rabbi Shalom Carmy hits what is, for me, another home run in his column, “He thought she was drunk,” in the Summer 2010 edition of Tradition. In particular, one part of his article criticizes what I do, sometimes, on this blog: public sharing of religious intimacy.

R' Carmy cites Rav Soloveichik, from a eulogy for Rabbi Zeev Gold:

If it is good for a man, and his heart is full of joy, let him reveal his feelings to God…thank Him and yearn for Him; but not exhibit them to others,lest an alien gaze desecrate this holy of holies. If, to the contrary, it is bad for man, and he is given over to distress, beneath the yoke of suffering and affliction, and fi nds himself abandoned and forlorn—let him confess before God, weep and entreat Him behind the curtain, but let no stranger approach the holy of Holies lest he desecrate through his indifference the sanctity of mute suffering oppressing him (Leviticus 16:17).

I know that this citation doesn’t explain why sharing the intimacy debases it. Further, R’ Carmy does note the need to share that intimacy for pedagogic purposes as well as for our health as social animals. But I think the case for this main point is strong.

To cite myself, from the derashah linked above:
Private religion is Moshe on Har Sinai, Adam and Chavah and Gd in the Garden, a direct relationship that is neither open nor shared, intimate, monogamous, an immanent relationship that bonds each Jew uniquely to Gd. Gd knows me, and I know Gd through my experiences of a lifetime, and no one else on Earth can claim the Gd-experience that I have.
Michah ordered us, והצנע לכת עם אלקיך, walk in צניעות with HaShem. צניעות is not specifically about covering a part of the body, or being humble. צניעות means privacy. We are to walk privately with HaShem, and so experience a faith which is intense and personal.

If our relationship with Gd is shared with others - even spouse, children, students, close friends - then will we ever have an authentic religious experience which is not for sharing, which we don't set about describing in print, which we don't photograph and email to all of our contacts, which is just "me and Gd"?

This matters. It impacts prayer and ritual, obviously. How could I seriously contemplate Gd in Shmoneh Esreih, if I never thought about Gd, if I never communicated with Gd, outside that davening framework?

Less obviously, it also impacts Olam haBa. One of the visions of Olam haBa [the “world to come”, Heaven, etc] I find most authentic is a description of a world in which the soul is fully exposed to Gd, and one can appreciate Gd at whatever level of purification, sensitivity and understanding he achieved in this world. Years ago, when I would imagine this potential future I would worry that I might find it boring. After all – none of the elements of daily life would persist, none of the distractions would be present, none of the usual types of satisfaction would be present. What would I do for eternity, locked in a room (so to speak) with Gd?

Ineed to think about this some more.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is Evil Redeemable?

Rav Kook is big on the idea (based on Yoma 86) that if a person sins, and then that sin motivates him to teshuvah and growth, then the sin is shown to have been positive. This is part of a worldview which sees everything in our universe as possessing some positive aspect and redeemable character.

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the relationship between this outlook and the concept of מצוה הבאה בעבירה (mitzvah haba’ah ba’aveirah), the rule that a mitzvah enabled by a sin is not a mitzvah. For example, the gemara (Succah 29b-30a) rules that one may not use a stolen lulav on Succos, even after the original owner has abandoned hope of claiming it, because he possesses it only as a result of sin.

The disqualification of מצוה הבאה בעבירה would seem to argue that evil is not redeemable; once an evil has been committed, it and its product are forever corrupt.

However, there are several different formulations of this מצוה הבאה בעבירה principle and its application, because the rule does not seem to be applied uniformly in the Talmud and halachah. Examples of its uneven application include:
• A stolen succah may not be used, but because of a sentence in the Torah rather than because of מצוה הבאה בעבירה (Succah 9a);
• A lulav from a tree that has been worshipped as an idol may be used (Succah 31b);
• One may not remove the berries from a hadas on Yom Tov, because that makes the hadas eligible for use – but if one did so, one may then use the hadas for its mitzvah (Succah 32b, as resolved in Rambam Hilchot Lulav 8:5);
• One may fulfill the mitzvah of procreation by producing a mamzer, at least according to some authorities (Yevamot 22a; Rama Even haEzer 1:6; but note apparent dissension in other authorities);
• Aravah branches picked by a non-Jew on Shabbat for a Jew may be used (Mordechai Succah 747).

1. Tosafot (Succah 30a) offers one formulation: A mitzvah may use an object with which sin has taken place, like a lulav from a tree that has been worshipped. The only limit is that the mitzvah may not be enabled by the sin.

This seems logical, but aside from flying in the face of Rav Kook’s optimistic view that sin enables good when it promotes teshuvah, it also flies in the face of the acceptable hadas which was de-berried on Yom Tov.

2. Shaar haMelech (to Hilchot Lulav 8:5) offers a second formulation: A mitzvah may be enabled by an aveirah. The only limitation is that the same action cannot involve both mitzvah and aveirah.

So a previously de-berried hadas, or a previously-worshipped lulav, or an aravah picked on Shabbos, is fine. On the other hand, one may not use a stolen lulav, since the act of using it is an act of failing to return it to its rightful owner.

This also seems logical, and it mirrors the concept of אין קטיגור נעשה סניגור, that the same entity [or, in this case, action] cannot be both agent of sin and agent of merit [eg gold from the Golden Calf cannot be used for atonement in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur].

To put this into Rav Kook's framework: Evil can be redeemed, but first one must abandon the evil.

3. The Yalkut haGershuni (cited in Sdei Chemed מ:עז:כו) suggests a third formulation: Evil cannot be used for a mitzvah because disobeying Gd contradicts the obedience of mitzvot. However, where the Torah defines a mitzvah purpose beyond obedience, and that purpose is not contradicted by the evil, then the product of that evil may be used for the mitzvah.

So a stolen lulav may not be used for Succot, because the nature of the mitzvah of picking up the Arba Minim is to demonstrate loyalty to Gd, and one who is loyal to Gd would not steal.

On the other hand, a stolen succah would not run afoul of מצוה הבאה בעבירה, since the Torah specifies that we sit in the Succah to remember the Divine protection in the desert. Stealing does not contradict remembering Gd’s protection in the desert.

Similarly, one who ate chametz on the afternoon before Pesach broke the law, but also fulfilled the mitzvah of eliminating chametz. The Torah’s goal is to eliminate chametz, and the fact that he ate chametz does not contradict the Torah’s defined good.

I'm not sure how to apply this to Rav Kook. To some extent I feel that sin automatically contradicts teshuvah - the goal of teshuvah is to draw close to Gd, and sin takes us in the opposite direction. But I'm not sure.

This idea is fraught with problems both technical (the disqualification of stolen matzah) and ethical (are we to read the Divine mind regarding its purposes?), but it’s still interesting.

The bottom line: Unless we adopt Shaar haMelech's formulation, the מצוה הבאה בעבירה disqualification seems to be a real challenge to Rav Kook’s rosy view of teshuvah.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rabbi Nebbish

One warm afternoon, some time back, I attended a shiur before which the rabbi took off his jacket, approaching the group in his shirtsleeves. I was surprised to hear an older woman turn to the person beside her and comment, audibly, “Nebbish.” She said it twice – there was no mistaking it.

I think she meant he was unimpressively thin, which he was. On a deeper level, though, the woman was channeling a stereotype of the skinny, knock-him-over-with-a-feather, bookish Orthodox rabbi.

Literature has several overlapping stereotypes for the Orthodox rabbi – the overweight, socially inept glutton; the avaricious user of his flock; the strict legalist of gaunt face and sharpened beard; and the nebbish, the skinny rabbi, often young, generally a wallflower.

I just finished reading Allegra Goodman’s “The Family Markowitz” the other day (this is definitely not a recommendation for the book), and she presents several appearances of this last, uninspiring mold of rabbi. It appeals, this vision of the clergy as a bookish young man who is socially inept and unimpressive. Discounting the religious message is easier if we can assume that the rabbi is a shy milquetoast who simply lacks the ability to pursue the sins he claims to willingly shun. Think of the initial impression of Father Mulcahy from MASH, until you learn that he has a sense of humor and can do a tracheotomy with a pocketknife.

Perhaps rabbis own a certain obligation to prove that they are not this pathetic; that feeling certainly figured into my decision to return to the gym several years ago. [Granted I haven’t gone since moving to Canada…]

But I think Jewish society owes itself some degree of freedom from the stereotype, which hampers the community as much as it hampers the rabbi. Assuming that the baal mussar [author of rebuke] does not know the pleasures he condemns is a cheap way out of taking his words seriously. Better to hear what he has to say, and weigh it seriously, regardless of the conclusion.

By the end of the shiur, the rabbi had completely won over this woman; she was laughing at his jokes, participating in the discussion, and calling, “More” when he concluded his talk. So he won the battle that day. But I wonder how many times the speaker is not given the opportunity to correct misimpressions, and so a valuable message is lost.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tempting children with their talents

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here, sans chulent]

I was built for Yom Kippur, as well as for Rosh haShanah, Tisha b'Av, Purim, Shavuos night, etc. – like many people, I thrive on intense emotion, and these days designed for extended periods of intense emotion are perfect for me. They seem more authentic, more alive, than the rest of the calendar.

The result is that I never want to come down from Musaf on Yom Kippur; I want to carry it right through to Minchah and Neilah. And so it was that yesterday I continued my tradition of teaching a class through the Yom Kippur break. I’ve been doing it since my Rhode Island days, and thank Gd I’ve had the health to sustain it. This year, thanks to Toronto’s situation at the west end of the time zone, we had a hefty two and a half hours.

So we learned Orot haTeshuvah from the text itself yesterday, covering the first, fifth, sixth and seventh chapters. One particular point of interest was Rav Kook’s statement (fifth perek) that a person is meant to develop his natural abilities and tendencies, and not to squelch them in pursuit of idealized perfection. Even though following one’s core nature might lead to error and sin at times, it would be, in Rav Kook’s words, a far greater sin to deny that inherent nature, like the nazir’s self-denial in pursuit of purification.

To use Rav Kook’s own words:
שלמותם של החיים היא דוקא עם המשך התגלותם על פי טבעם העצמי. וכיון שהטבע מצד עצמו אינו בעל הסתכלות והבחנה, הרי החטא מוכרח הוא מצד זה, "ואין אדם צדיק בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא." וביטול עצם טבעיותם של החיים, כדי שיהיה האדם בלתי חוטא, זהו עצמו החטא היותר גדול, "וכפר עליו מאשר חטא על הנפש."

On one level, this seems to say that one shouldn't refuse to enjoy humor in order to rein in his character, and one shouldn't decline to enjoy hiking, if hiking is something he enjoys, in order to spend 100% of his time in the beit midrash. But it also speaks to developing one's talents and abilities, in general.

This reminded me of a story I once heard about Rav Ruderman at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore – that he had accepted a student who was gifted as a pianist, and he told the student to continue to set aside time to develop his piano talents. [I’d love verification on this story, from anyone else who has more information.]

But then I heard another story, about a young Jewish woman who is a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, and is facing serious decisions on Shabbos and dress in order to develop as a model. We must develop our talents, right? It would be a sin to squelch them, right?

And it reminded me of a family I know whose pre-teen daughter was developing into a star athlete, with her team coach talking about the Olympics. How far could they take her before they would be misleading her into thinking that chillul Shabbos and other competition-related transgressions were an option? Or before she would decide for herself that these were an option?

I don’t think career-long violation of Shabbos is what Rav Kook had in mind when he noted that following one’s core nature might lead to error and sin at times.

Rav Kook’s words here are loaded. They work well for adults, encouraging us to find out who we are and what we can do, and not to lock ourselves in boxes in pursuit of perfection. But I wouldn’t recommend these words, carte blanche, as a strategy for raising children. For children this advice needs moderation, because children cannot necessarily put on the brakes when necessary.

To use the example above: Training a child for Olympic-level competition is cruel, if you don't want the child to compete on Shabbat.

I do believe that every talent can and should be used in a positive way, and I’m behind the idea that squelching talent is denial of a Divine gift. I hear Rav Kook’s point about this being a great sin. And I believe we should support our children in discovering their talents, and in developing them. But there are limits to what we can do with those talents, and I fear that this is an adult challenge, not one meant for kids.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The High Price of Holy Days

I posted this years ago, in a different forum; it's on my mind again these days, although I am no longer in the shul rabbinate.

Seen on Jewish Jokes:

The rabbi is speaking to his lower East Side congregation and he says, "with Hashem's help we shall walk but first, we must crawl." The congregation replies to the rabbi with exclamations of "ahmein Rabbi, im yirtze Hashem we shall crawl."

The rabbi then says, "And soon we will, run but before we can run, with Hashem’s help, we must first walk.” Again, the pious members of the minyan all reply, "im yirtze Hashem, we shall walk."

The rabbi then works himself into a rhetorical frenzy as he exclaims, “And we shall reach the promised land. Hashem shall provide but first we must run.” The ecstatic congregation gleefully shouts back “Ahmein rabbi, we shall run. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall run."

The rabbi concludes his sermon by stating, "And we will reach that promised land if you dig deep into your hearts and checkbooks and make a generous pledge to the building fund!!" The congregation then replies, “Crawl Rabbi, crawl. Im yirtze Hashem, we shall crawl."

At the start of Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur night we say אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העברינים, “We permit prayer with those who have sinned.” The tradition goes back to ancient times, when people who sinned grievously were cast out of the community; these people were welcomed back for the Day of Atonement. It’s a wonderful concept, marred only by the little fact that - in official policy - we only welcome in people who can afford tickets. Junk bond kings and options manipulators? Come on in! Pious people who can’t pay? Fuggedaboudit!

I once knew a priest who, when told that Jews needed to get tickets to attend shul services, thought it was a joke. His church is straining to get people in the door, not to lock them out!

Of course, in my shuls anyone with a tale of woe could evade the cost of membership or a guest seat by coming to the soft touch rabbi. And, in truth, even paying didn’t have to be that expensive; people could become members and pay what they could afford, making appropriate arrangements with the shul finance committee. So it’s not really as bad as it sounds.

But BOY does it sound bad. All the anti-Jewish cliches come to mind: cheap, penny-grabbing, you name it. Want to come pray for Divine forgiveness? Sure, just join our synagogue. Or, prove you’re a member elsewhere and fork over some change for a guest seat. Frankly, it makes me want to flip over the table of the money-changers, if I didn’t think that might lead to Crusades a millenium later. I didn’t charge families even for time-consuming things like teaching bar mitzvah leining and handling funerals/weddings, because I couldn’t stand the idea that people in need of religious services should go broke paying for them.

But: Paying for Judaism is old news, as old as Jewish communities and the half-shekel collection. The Gemara (Yoma 35b) tells of the great Hillel being locked out of the beis medrash [Study Hall] because he couldn’t afford the entry fee! What has been the justification all these centuries?

I think we haven’t looked at dues and tickets as charging for a religious service; we’ve looked at it as supporting the community. If no one pays, who’s going to cover the utility bills? The mortgage? The repair bill for the roof? The kiddush costs (especially high on Yom Kippur, of course)? The exorbitant salary that paid for my Lamborghini, second home and twice-annual vacation? We charge for tickets as a way of enforcing community on each citizen, whether he’s ready for areivus or not.

But times they are a-changin’ in two major ways:
1. Post 19th century Europe we no longer have an all-encompassing, self-governing Jewish community. There is no king granting the Jewish council the right of self-government and self-taxation. Civil marriage is readily available (outside of Israel, a topic for another time), and ex-communication in our communities is a joke. Shul boards are taking a long time to catch up with reality, but no one really must join the Jewish community anymore unless they want to. So you can’t impose a fee like this; people just opt out.

2. Second, Chabad and the breakaways have changed the way the game is played. Armed with granted dollars to launch their institutions, with funds and discounts to cover much of their programming, Chabad opts not to rely on dues. Small breakaway synagogues don’t charge either, since their costs are low and what they really need is attendance. The result is that synagogues selling tickets lose a lot of people to the free Chabad or breakaway down the block.

So I’m of the feeling that ticket fees are going to go the way of the babirusa in a generation or so, if that long. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by some new fundraiser. Perhaps they’ll be replaced by community philanthropists who want to see free services for all who desire it. Or perhaps they’ll just cut the rabbi’s salary. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Selichos Haiku Rant

Okay, it's a little cynical... sorry. I do get a lot out of the words of Slichos. It's just that some of the other elements make it difficult.

I rise for Slichos
before first light, day’s re-birth
the dawn of return

I rise for Slichos
limning the day’s fresh slate with
pious commitment

I rise for Slichos
b'Ashmores haBoker
tie's knot like tzitzis

I rise for Slichos
socks don't match, surprised shoes do
left home without phone

I rise for Slichos
shul skips half the piyyutim
so unforgiven

I rise for Slichos
traverse tangled tongue twisters
catch speeding chazan

I rise for Slichos
cry Ashamnu, Bagadnu
transmute sleep to guilt

I rise for Slichos
in haste water bottle lost
spend the day in thirst

I rise for Slichos
clouded thinking, slow to grasp,
mind mired in drowse

I rise for Slichos
sleep-deprived, temper shortened
what is wrong with me?

I rise for Slichos
pre-dawn prayers change my world -
ruin night seder

I rose for Slichos
before first light, day’s re-birth
what a bust it was.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

For want of an apology, a Pro Bowl guard was lost

Okay, who was right in the apology scenario described below - Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, or Logan Mankins, [soon to be former] New England Patriot?

About two weeks ago, Mankins and his agent Frank Bauer arrived at the Patriots training facility in Foxboro, Mass., with both sides intending and believing they would be able to hammer out a long-term deal similar to the seven-year, $56.7 million contract that Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans signed with New Orleans in the spring.

Shortly before the deal could be consummated, the Patriots asked Mankins to apologize to Patriots owner Robert Kraft for comments he made in June, questioning the New England owner's integrity. Mankins did. He called Kraft, apologized and explained why he spoke out in the way he did. It was a nice conversation and it paved the way for Mankins' long-term deal to be consummated.

Then, about 90 minutes later, just before finalizing the deal, the Patriots requested Mankins issue a public apology. Not only did Mankins refuse, but he became offended, according to sources. The optimism that had been built, the momentum that the talks had generated, completed collapsed -- and even regressed.

Now Mankins no longer wants to play in New England, and the Patriots may be forced to trade him with no resolution in sight.

[Full story here. Mankins' original words regarding Kraft were: "Right now, this is about principle with me and keeping your word and how you treat people. This is what I thought the foundation of the Patriots was built on. Apparently, I was wrong. Growing up, I was taught a man's word is his bond. Obviously this isn't the case with the Patriots."]

Instinctively, I'd have said that Bob Kraft and the Patriots might be cutting off their collective nose, spiting their team's face. Sure, pride matters. And, sure, team discipline matters. But how far will you take that? We are taught that a person should be מעביר על מדותיו, should forgive his rights.

But, on the other hand, keep in mind Rabbi Yosi's words (Yerushalmi Bava Kama 8:7):
If one pursues forgiveness, what does the Torah say? ‘He will redeem his soul from passing into destruction.’
R’ Yosi said: This is true only if his sin was anything other than creation of a bad reputation. One who created a bad reputation for another will never be forgiven.

And add in the explanation of Rav Yosef Karo, citing the Terumat haDeshen (Beit Yosef Choshen Mishpat 420): Because perhaps someone who heard the slander did not hear the apology.

So perhaps I'd side with Mr. Kraft, after all.

Interesting thoughts, leading up to Yom Kippur.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh HaShanah vs. Yom Kippur (Dvar Torah, Rosh haShanah Day 2)

[If you are interested in my three shiurim on Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah, they are now on-line here, here and here. Note that the source sheets have quick translations of the cited lines from Orot, but the sheets also contain a link to the Hebrew edition of Orot haTeshuvah, available on-line here.]

Why do I need Rosh haShanah, when Yom Kippur is coming? Why bother sweating through Elul, Selichos and a Day of Judgment when I know that HaShem’s mercy is just one week distant, the product of a simple viduy, a single day’s fasting and a heartfelt neilah?

An answer may lie in the perplexing story of Dovid haMelech and Batsheva.

We know the basic details – Batsheva’s husband Uriah serves in Dovid’s army. Dovid becomes enamored of her and has her brought to the palace. She conceives, Dovid tells her husband Uriah to return home, Uriah refuses, Dovid sends Uriah to the front lines, Uriah is killed. Dovid declares חטאתי, I’ve sinned, and does teshuvah. Batsheva becomes Dovid’s wife, and mother of Shlomo haMelech.

We are also familiar with the declaration of R’ Yonasan, that Dovid did not sin. R’ Yonasan asserts that anyone who says Dovid sinned is mistaken, and the gemara clarifies that this doesn’t mean Dovid really sinned but it’s a mistake to say so – rather, it means that there was no sin. Uriah and Batsheva were divorced, and so on.

The problem is that R’ Yonasan’s predecessor, Rabban Shimon bar Yochai, declared that by doing as he did with Batsheva, Dovid taught future generations that teshuvah is possible, that one who has sinned can return to Gd. Tosafot even says that this is why Tanach records חטאם וקבלת תשובתם - he uses the term חטא to describe Dovid’s actions! What, didn’t Rabban Shimon bar Yochai and Tosafot get the memo? Dovid didn’t sin in the first place!

The explanation seems to be that this is, in fact, a machlokes between R’ Yonasan and Rabban Shimon bar Yochai about how to understand a single sentence in Shemuel Alef. The navi says, “ויהי דוד לכל דרכיו משכיל וד' עמו, Dovid displayed insight in his actions, and HaShem was with him.” R’ Yonasan looks at this pasuk and asks, אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? Can it be that Dovid sinned, and yet HaShem was with him?! Can’t be! Rather, we must conclude that Dovid did not sin with Batsheva. As R’ Yonasan sees it, HaShem would never have associated with Dovid, had he sinned with Batsheva. Teshuvah notwithstanding, one who would commit such an aveirah could never be linked with HaShem.

Rabban Shimon bar Yochai disagrees – Dovid taught us precisely this point, that one can return to HaShem, and HaShem will accept him back. Having sinned does not mean we will be held forever at a distance.

Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur play out the same opposition regarding what it takes to draw close to Gd.

Rosh haShanah is יום הדין, the Day of Judgment, כי חק לישראל הוא, a day of חק, of stone-sculpted law, unchanging and unforgiving. Rosh haShanah is Moshe declaring, יקוב הדין את ההר, Let the law pierce the mountain! Rosh haShanah is Yonah declaring that mercy is an insult to the law! We don’t even bother with viduy and Ashamnu on Rosh haShanah, and we make only the barest mention of teshuvah. Instead, on Rosh haShanah we pass before HaShem כבני מרון, one by one, to face a trial in which there is no clemency. Within the Rosh haShanah vision, there is no room in the perimeter of Divinity for a person who has sinned and strayed, fallen short, missed the mark, whatever term we wish to place upon a display of human frailty. אם עונות תשמור י—ה ד' מי יעמוד, Rosh haShanah says that none deserve to survive for their sins. As far as Rosh haShanah is concerned, אפשר חטא בא לידו ושכינה עמו? It is impossible to believe that Dovid haMelech would have become king, patriarch of the eternal Jewish monarchy, progenitor and namesake of Mashiach, poet laureate of the Jewish nation, if he had sinned with Batsheva. Impossible.

And then Yom Kippur paints a competing vision, in which the Jew who has sinned is promised לפני ד' תטהרו, you shall be purified before HaShem. מה מקוה מטהר את הטמאים אף הקב"ה מטהר את ישראל, Just as the mikvah purifies the impure, so HaShem will purify us. Yom Kippur is the Divine response to Yonah, “How could I not have mercy?” Yom Kippur is a day of ובקשתם משם את ד' אלקיך ומצאת, of seeking HaShem and finding HaShem, of fasting and of korban and of apology, even after all of our sins. Yom Kippur is a day of using the anxiety generated by our sins to fuel our return to Gd, a day when, as Rav Kook said, עיקר יסוד השלימות שלו היא העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, that perfection is not in our deeds but in our desires, not in our perfect records but in our perfect longing for return. In the Yom Kippur vision, as Rabban Shimon bar Yochai contended, Dovid may well have crossed the line of legality – but he returned, and HaShem accepted him back, because HaShem will associate with us so long as we return.

We don’t pasken between R’ Yonasan and Rabban Shimon bar Yochai, with their conflicting versions of Dovid’s actions and of HaShem’s pledged affinity for him and for his line. And we don’t pasken between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, with their conflicting expectations for keeping Divine company. Both claim our loyalty, and hold unique space in the halachic and hashkafic landscape.

In day to day life, our natural tendency is to style ourselves as Yom Kippur Jews, expecting that we will make mistakes and then repent. But, to address our initial question of why we mark Rosh haShanah’s judgment if we will be forgiven on Yom Kippur, we very much need a Rosh haShanah, a day to set the bar high and demand of ourselves that we hit the mark the first time, that we stretch beyond our preconceived limitations to reach for perfection, a day to motivate ourselves with a vision that moves and inspires us to greatness.

There will be plenty of time for Yom Kippur and its message of ex post facto redemption tonight, and during the next week. For now, though, for Shofar, for Musaf, for the remainder of the day, we ask of ourselves, we demand of ourselves, nothing less than perfection.

Like the gemara in Shabbos prescribes for Dovid, like Rosh haShanah commands for us, we set personal standards for the coming weeks and months, resolving that this year we will learn more Torah, that this year we will speak more appropriately, that this year we will focus more on davening than on conversing with our neighbors, that this year we will speak out for what is right rather than settle for what is popular.

The payoff of this Rosh haShanah drive for perfection is not only for ourselves and our own righteousness, but for our children, our nieces and nephews, and our grandchildren.

If we leapfrog Rosh haShanah’s intensity in pursuit of Yom Kippur’s forgiveness, then we teach our children to leapfrog their assignments and responsibilities as well, relying on whatever mercy they can beg from teachers and parents. Better to teach our children to demand much of themselves, to let their reach exceed their grasp as Robert Browning advised - and to teach that by our own example.

Daniel Burnham, an architect who designed, among other things, New York’s Flatiron Building and Washington DC’s Union Station, offered wise advice along these lines, urging us to demand much of ourselves. He advised, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. ”

1. This is more dvar torah than Derashah; I see the freedom to deliver a more simple dvar torah as a benefit of being out of the shul rabbinate.

2. The germ of this idea came from a friend who asked why the gemara in Shabbos is so bent on determining that Dovid did not sin, when the story of his teshuvah and its acceptance is so powerful.

3. The gemara that exonerates Dovid is Shabbat 56b. The gemara that indicates Dovid was modeling teshuvah for us is Avodah Zarah 4b-5a, and Tosafos there uses the term חטא explicitly. The problematic pasuk indicating Dovid's righteousness is Shemuel I 18:14, Moshe's declaration of יקוב הדין את ההר is Sanhedrin 6b, and the Rav Kook quote is from Orot haTeshuvah 5:6.

4. Thanks, Russell, for finding the origin of the Daniel Burnham quote here.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gifts to give your Rabbi

Like many bloggers, I occasionally skim through the keywords that bring people to this blog; they can be amusing.

Looking at Google Analytics, I find that in the past month, three people came to my blog by searching for "best ever rosh hashanah 2010 ecard", and another three by searching for "parshat shoftim 2010 elena kagan". One person was looking for "tefillin talmud shabbat fly" and another for "yosef albo bps director of marketing". Huh? And another for "Can a rabbi drive a honda". Weird, but the answer to that is yes, I think. Then there was "yoda in judaism" and "science update about radiation 2010" - hope you found what you were looking for, whatever that was.

Of course, at this time of year I tend to get quite a bit of rabbinic traffic, via searches like Rosh haShanah derashah, Yom Kippur derashah, sermon. Feel free to use my writing, folks. כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם.

My favorite recent search was this: Gifts to give a rabbi.

I like that idea, so let me help you out. Please excuse me if this list is somewhat depressing and cynical, though; I’m in the middle of a campaign to remind myself of why I don’t want to leap back into the shul rabbinate. (As though Elul wasn’t enough.)

Here goes, with a month-by-month list of appropriate gifts for rabbis:

Tishrei – Anxiety pills. Or throat lozenges. Or throat lozenges laced with anxiety medication. Or a prescription for medical marijuana.

Cheshvan – Babysitting and a gift certificate for two to a restaurant, so the rebbetzin can get out one night and bring a friend. The rabbi won't be available due to the crush of post-Succos meetings and shiurim, but that's all right; she deserves it more, anyway, and so does the person kind enough to be her friend while she's tearing her covered hair out managing the family throughout Tishrei.

Kislev – A life-sized mannequin to use at minyan when he can’t find a 10th man because everyone is either away on vacation or snowbound at home. And antibiotics, because his lack of sleep and poor diet make him vulnerable to every bug and bacterium perched on the banisters of the hospital stairwells.

Teves – A set of Comedy CD's. Statistics show that January sees a spike in deaths, and the rabbi will need something to pick up his spirits after each funeral.

Shevat – A wall mural of the Kotel, or a sandy beach, or Paris, so he can feel as though he’s going on vacation like all of his congregants.

Adar – Book of 101 Purim Costume ideas, so he can use his mind for more important things, like censoring the Purim Shpiel of lines that will upset people.

Adar II – More anxiety medication, for the moment he realizes that even a Leap Year can’t postpone Pesach forever.

Nisan – Before Pesach: A new set of elbow-length rubber gloves to protect him when he kashers your sink.

Nisan - After Pesach: See Cheshvan.

Iyyar – A punching bag, for ridding himself of his frustrations in the guise of engaging in vigorous physical exercise. The one you got him last year is already toast.

Sivan – No-Doz – Because he doesn’t have the Shavuos-night option of going home at 1 AM, or of dozing during one of his shiurim. Even the one you’ve heard once before, which he’s heard many more times than you have.

Tammuz – A gift-certificate to a good seforim store, so he can get to work on preparing for Elul/Rosh haShanah/Shabbos Shuvah/Yom Kippur/Succos/Hoshana Rabbah/Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. Not that he will actually get to work on it, but having a pile of sefarim that look like they could harbor good material will set his mind at ease during his family's annual four-day summer getaway.

Av –Ties (after Tisha b’Av, of course). It’s the only way his daf yomi will be spared staring at the same scenery, day after day, and it will spare him from missing a couple of hours of work to purchase something new for himself for Yom Tov.

Elul – A book of derashos, or a CD of shiurim from www.torontotorah.com, because by now it’s too late for him to start reading those sefarim he bought in Tammuz...

Monday, September 6, 2010


A brief note to my readers:

I would like to take a moment to ask my readers, the regulars and the drop-ins, for mechilah (forgiveness) for anything hurtful or offensive I wrote, or should have written and did not, in the past year.

If there was anything at all, please let me know; I will grow by learning from my errors.

May we all be inscribed and sealed for a great new year,

Sunday, September 5, 2010

How to Bribe Gd

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

Just a quick Torah thought, synopsis of a greater discussion, leading up to Rosh haShanah. If you want something a little lighter, you might think about clicking on that Haveil Havalim link above.

In three separate discussions, the gemara challenges our right to expect Divine clemency. The Torah tells us that Gd is a Judge who does not show partisan favor or accept bribes, so the gemara challenges the biblical blessing of ישא ד' פניו אליך, “HaShem will lift His face toward you,” which indicates a show of special favor. How could a fair judge show favor to a litigant? [The question itself is posed oddly agrammatically in the gemara, but אכמ"ל.]

The gemara’s answers in those three different discussions are:
1. HaShem only shows favor in matters that are between us and Gd, not in matters between one human being and another (Rosh haShanah 17b)

2. HaShem only shows favor before the verdict (Niddah 70b)

3. HaShem shows favor to those who transcend their obligations (Berachos 20b)

I believe all three answers draw on the same point: That our hope lies in moving Gd off of the judicial bench.

1. If it’s a matter between myself and others, Gd is a judge. But if it’s between myself and Gd, then Gd is not judge but plaintiff, and Gd can choose to drop the charges;

2. Before concluding a trial, Gd can choose to cease serving as a judge (much as Sanhedrin 6b discusses the power of a human judge to counsel compromise before concluding the trial);

3. If I transcend my legal obligations, then I show that I am not appealing to the law as a standard for my benefit, at all. Therefore, Gd does not adjudicate my liability based on the law, either.

Perhaps this is one reason why we don’t appeal to Gd for forgiveness with viduy, etc on Rosh haShanah – Because on that day Gd has already declared the role of Judge, כי חק לישראל הוא משפט לאלקי יעקב. So we wait until afterward, when that role of Judge is not guaranteed, and then we do our best to convince Gd not to serve as judge, and to offer clemency.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Death of a derashah

I wrote the derashah below for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, but my Rebbetzin/editrix nixed it when I read it to her last night.

The crimes:
1. Too obvious;
2. Fuzzy use of 'spirituality' between Rabbi Dr. Twerski and Rav Kook;
3. It's overwritten.

I agree with all three counts, but I don't want the work to go entirely to waste, so here it is. Let this at least be a lesson in the challenges your rabbi faces in crafting a good derashah.

I’ve always been taught that there are Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, ten days of repentance. The term is rooted in the gemara, from two thousand years ago – the Bavli mentions ten days of repentance between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and the Yerushalmi calls them עשרת ימי תשובה. The only problem is that the term seems to be wrong – we don’t have ten days. Rosh haShanah is not a day of Teshuvah.

Classically, teshuvah involves admitting we’ve sinned, regretting the sin and determining that we won’t repeat these offenses – and we do none of those on Rosh haShanah. We don’t say “Al Cheit,” we don’t say “Ashamnu, Bagadnu,” we don’t say Selichos. This makes sense – if we would plead guilty, the case would be closed, Rosh haShanah would be over! Finished, there’s nothing more to discuss! The last thing we want to do is to walk into court on the day of judgment and say, “Guilty as charged!”

But if we don’t admit sin and apologize on Rosh haShanah, then in what way is this day part of עשרת ימי תשובה? Those days really begin tomorrow, and we should call them the Eight Days of Teshuvah!

Our answer may begin with an observation by Rabbi Dr. Avraham Twerski, regarding altruism.

Dr. Twerski describes a natural human need to behave altruistically, to sacrifice immediate personal gain on behalf of a greater good. His book, Spiritual Self, describes the hungry unease people feel when they are not acting altruistically, and the misguided, self-destructive routes they may take to try to sate that hunger.

Dr. Twerski identifies such altruism with spirituality, and he writes, “The spiritual person is… one who is willing to sacrifice personal comfort and physical contentment for an external goal. Development of such spirituality among young people may be the only way they may be deterred from the destructive use of mind-altering chemicals… [L]ack of spirituality and pursuit of contentment as the ultimate goal will lead to some other type of indulgent behavior.”

In another book, Dr. Twerski tells the story of a young man who came to him for suicide counseling. The man stood to inherit billions from his father, more than he could ever spend, but he was miserable. His octogenaraian father was addicted to the office and did nothing else, and the young man envisioned himself going that route and living an empty life. Dr. Twerski suggested, “With that money at your disposal, just think of the way you could be helpful to many thounsands of people.” And he writes, “The man looked at me quizzically, as if I had just descended from Mars. ‘Give it away? Why would I want to give it away?’” It’s a classic case of someone who feels something is off inside, who is missing the altruism, but who is going a self-destructive route because he isn’t aware of what is troubling him.

Writing ninety years ago, Rav Kook made the same diagnosis regarding the Jew and his mitzvos.

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that the teshuvah process begins before any viduy, with our registering a spiritual unease, with our noticing that our internal balance is off – not just in terms of altruism, but in terms of Judaism.

As Rav Kook describes it, our personalities have a natural equilibrium, mediating between our responsibilities toward ourselves, toward our families, and toward the world at large. If we stop fulfilling some of these responsibilites, these roles for which we were designed, we grow disturbed, and even pained, by a barely-conscious awareness that we have strayed from our basic nature and purpose. Until we return, we are restless, filled with the sort of epic angst that makes for moody poetry and dramatic theatre, and either we respond to that angst with anxiety, irritation and anger, or we diagnose the illness, recognize the source of our pain, and mend the rift between our potential and our actual.

As Rav Kook wrote, drawing a parallel between the physical body’s immune system and that of the soul, “פליטת החמרים המזיקים פועלת פעולתה הטובה והמבריאה בגויה כשהיא שלמה בתכונתה, והרקה רוחנית של כל מעשה רע וכל רשומים רעים ומקולקלים הבאים ממנו... מוכרחת היא לבוא, כשהאורגן בריא מצדו הרוחני והגשמי יחדיו.” “The removal of harmful materials has a salutary and therapeutic effect upon the healthy body, and the spiritual removal of bad deeds and their bad and corrupt impressions… must also happen, when the organism is physically and spiritually healthy. ”

Based on both Dr. Twerski and Rav Kook, all of us naturally feel some discomfort, some sense that our balance is askew, and this triggers our teshuvah instincts. Interpreting the signal and prescribing a solution is the rest of the teshuvah process.

But we have a problem. Perhaps some of has have a highly tuned, natural sensitivity to this internal signal, but surely this is not true for all of us. In the course of our lives as Jews who live and work and play in the larger world, who interact with hundreds, or even thousands, of human beings who do not share our tribal mitzvos or our habits of heritage, who read books and listen to music and watch entertainment that do not include krias shema and mezuzah and kashrus and shatnez and talmud torah other than as cultural curiosities, our natural sensitivities to spiritual equilibrium become dulled.

Dr. Twerski’s internal altruism compass may continue to function, because the greater world recognizes the importance of selflessness and reinforces it for us – but how will we be reminded to pay attention to Rav Kook’s internal Jewish compass? How will we be motivated to move along a path of teshuvah?

This is the role of the spiritual sledgehammer that is Rosh haShanah. With all the subtlety of a vuvuzela, the shofar blasts in our ears, proclaiming, “ד' מלך! HaShem is the King!” We add into our davening the plea, “UvChen ten pachdicha,” appealing to Gd for a greater Divine presence in our world, for a presence which guarantees that we will have constant awareness of our specific obligations as Jews.

Rosh haShanah, with its מלכיות and its emphatic proclamation of Gd as King, summons us to re-orient ourselves as citizens of a Divine kingdom, and to feel for that honest voice inside that can tell us how well we have been meeting our obligations.

This is the position of Rosh haShanah at the head of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, before there can be any Viduy. Rosh haShanah is the wake-up call, the day when we re-learn the question we need to ask ourselves: How are we doing? Are we religiously in-sync? And if we are not, what will we do about it?

In fact, this fits Rav Gifter’s explanation of the relationship between viduy and teshuvah. As Rav Gifter explained it, we have a broad mitzvah of teshuvah, which begins with preparatory acts and awareness of need, and concludes with viduy – all of these are elements which create the grand process and mitzvah of teshuvah.

Certainly, this re-orientation begins with the figurative as well as literal alarm clock that is the shofar, and it is supported by the words of our Rosh haShanah davening. While we are within the walls of this room, we may well begin to feel the stirrings of that spiritual compass described by Rav Kook. But there’s more to the process, there must be more, or our awareness of discomfort will be numbed by the honey on our challah at lunch, and it will dissipate entirely as the first tendril of lashon hara insinuates itself into our pre-dessert conversations.

We turn to classic advice from a gemara in Berachos, building on a pasuk in Tehillim: לעולם ירגיז אדם יצר טוב על יצר הרע, One should always stir up his yetzer hatov, his desire to do good, so that it will triumph over the rest of his nature. The first step is to actively seek and nurture that internal compass.

If that is sufficient, if taking a sounding for internal disruption works and inspires us to return to balance, great. If not, the gemara continues, יעסוק בתורה, we turn to Talmud Torah, to learning Torah, both to teach us what we should be looking for and to provide us with a general mental environment in which the internal spiritual balance is what matters.

If that suffices, the introspection and learning work to stir teshuvah and restore equilibrium, great. Otherwise, יקרא קריאת שמע, recite Shema, with its reminders of our core beliefs and imperatives. Inculcate within ourselves that HaShem our Creator is One, that we are meant to develop love for HaShem, that we have responsibilities as Jews.

If that works and we are now ready for a durable teshuvah, great. But the gemara says that if it doesn’t, יזכור לו יום המיתה, we should remember the day of death, the end of our time here, and use that as the ultimate spur to ask ourselves: What are we doing here? Why are we alive? Are we using our potential? How are we using our potential?

This is the process of Teshuvah. Rosh haShanah is the beginning, the Shofar is the beginning, the davening is the beginning of these Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, waking us up to the need for teshuvah.

I have a friend who is very successful in his field, he’s a significant philanthropist and a thoughtful Jew. He told me a few years ago, in his early fifties, that he had felt for a long time that something was off inside, until he lost a parent and came to shul for kaddish and finally figured out what was bothering him: He needed to come to shul to daven once in a while, maybe weekly, maybe a little more. He needed to make space for Gd.

This decision had taken my friend years. Not because he’s uneducated – he’s known about minyan for decades. Not because he’s insensitive to Judaism. Not because he’s unintelligent – he’s smarter than the great majority of people I know. What took him years was insensitivity to his internal compass; he had only the vaguest sense that something was wrong, and no clue as to how he should proceed, until he came to shul to say kaddish and the answer was in his face.

Rav Kook says that all it takes is a single sustained thought to make this happen. הרצון הטוב הוא הכל – Will is everything. Once we establish our will to figure it out, our will to act, we will figure it out.

We begin by coronating Gd with our davening. We continue with the shofar. We extend this through the coronation of Gd at the end of Yom Kippur, declaring ד' הוא האלקים. And, ultimately, our sensitivity to Rav Kook’s compass inside will carry us through the year, a year of health and happiness pledged to us with a Divine כתיבה וחתימה טובה.

1. The gemara mentions ten days of teshuvah in Berachos 12b and Rosh haShanah 18b; the Yerushalmi uses the term עשרת ימי תשובה in Rosh HaShanah 1:3.

2. Technically, of course, it should be "Nine days of Teshuvah" if we omit Rosh haShanah, but I don't need to go there.

3. Rabbi Dr. Twerski's first quote is from page 13 of
Spiritual Self, and his second is from Without a job, who am I?

4. Rav Kook's quote is from
Orot haTeshuvah 5:1. See also 1, 2, 3, 4:9, 5:6, 6:3, 8:2, 8:4, 8:10, 14:6, 15:3-4.

5. The gemara in Berachos is from 5a.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Lesson in community politics: Keep it out of the derashah

In my very early years in the rabbinate, a congregant gave me a valuable lesson in community politics; it’s guided me ever since.

There was a potential schism involving a handful of people substantively, and a greater circle of people casually. Of the 230 families in the shul, probably 10-15 were in the former group, and 20-25 in the latter. But to me it felt like everyone was involved, because it was an issue that was in my face daily, and because I saw many of the people involved daily. The matter became intense enough, ultimately, that I felt like I needed to speak publicly about it, to set and justify policy, in the derashah.

Of course, as I noted in this article a couple of years ago, the rabbi’s speech is a clumsy, awkward tool, and not one to be used to address real issues or instigate substantive and durable change. But the matter was so in-my-face that I wanted to go that route, to tell the community what I thought and vindicate my stance to any doubters.

Fortunately, someone involved convinced me not to go that route, but to handle things privately. I owe him a great debt for his advice. His point was simple: Right now, 10% of the shul is involved. If you speak about it from the bimah, that number will be 100%.

The math is simple. The logic is simple. But I couldn’t see it, because I was in the middle of it.

I didn’t speak about it. The issue continued to percolate for a long time afterward, and it did grow beyond that initial group, but it never became the dominant issue I would have made it, and I never needed to become publicly involved in the potentially ugly side of it.

That day, I learned several things – none of which were new to me, but all of which definitely require regular reinforcement:

1) Use your speeches for what they do best; don’t try to turn them into multi-purpose tools.

2) Don’t confuse what’s on your mind with what’s on everyone else’s mind.

3) Don’t get carried away by your imagination of where political issues may go in the future.

4) And, of course: Listen to others; they can offer an objective voice, and they can offer a wise voice.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Teshuvah of Yishmael

My article in Yeshiva University's "Rosh HaShanah To-Go" is now available on-line for download, here. [On the same page, you can retrieve my article from last year, "The Drama of Tashlich."]

The piece is about Yishmael's possible teshuvah, and an attempt to understand why Yishmael's eviction and rescue are included in our Rosh HaShanah Torah reading.

To me, the Divine verdict that Yishmael is a "tzaddik" at the moment he cries out - despite his horrific past - is the greatest confirmation of the value of thoughts of teshuvah.

As a Jew of our age, still staggered by yesterday's murders, it's hard to read something redemptive about Yishmael, putative ancestor of the biggest murderers of Jews of our time. But the story is there, and the sources are there, and Rosh HaShanah is here, so read it I must, no?

My conclusion, for those who won't read the rest of the article:
[We] may also suggest that Yishmael is a human being who learned from his punishment and managed to correct his path and find his way to God. In this sense, Yishmael is a potent model for Rosh haShanah.

Many of us have difficulty relating to Yitzchak, who went willingly to be bound and slaughtered, who needs not the privilege of repentance for he is an עולה תמימה , a perfect offering. Yitzchak’s death sentence was handed down in response to no sin of his own, and so he is a distant role model. Yishmael, on the other hand, evicted from his father’s home with Divine approval, may resonate with the child of Avraham who arrives at Rosh HaShanah on the heels of a monthlong personal audit that has turned up more red ink than black.

The heart of our Torah reading on the first day of Rosh haShanah is still the story of Sarah, but on the Day of Judgment let us be edified and inspired by its epilogue, the exile of a young man into a harsh world, and his ultimate return.

I also wonder about a point I included in a footnote - the way we read about Yishmael's eviction on Rosh HaShanah, and the eviction of the Sa'ir la'Azazel, frequently associated with Esav, on Yom Kippur. I don't have anything further on this, just noting the parallel.