Thursday, October 20, 2016

Understanding the Yom Tov connection of "Kah Keli"

Many Ashkenazi shuls say the piyut of "Kah Keli" (י-ה א-לי) after the haftorah and before Ashrei on Yom Tov mornings. The poem (text available here) consists of three verses, each of which starts with one unique sentence, and then continues with two sentences of refrain. The refrain lists various types of korbanot, and then asks Gd to bring us back to our land.

So what does this poem have to do with Yom Tov?

Looking at the standard Artscroll and Koren commentaries didn't yield anything for me, but here are my thoughts:

1. The opening line of each verse refers to one of the three Regalim:
Verse 1 describes Gd as גואלי - "my redeemer" - Pesach.
Verse 2 describes Gd's unfathomable wisdom - לתבונתו אין חקר - the Torah of Shavuot (granted that Shavuot is mainly about the bikkurim, in liturgy it is closely associated with the presentation of the Torah at Sinai)
Verse 3 speaks of Gd "joining the tents" - חבר כל אהלו - a reference to the Succah. (There may also be a pun in לבלב for לולב.)

2. The refrain is an appropriate introduction for Musaf, as it lists the korbanot and asks Gd to bring us back to our land in the merit of those korbanot.
This is a point that the Artscroll and Koren translations seem to miss, even though it makes the piyut a reiteration of the overall theme of the musaf amidah - remember our korbanot, and bring us back home.
The refrain lists the korbanot of various kinds, and then requests, "זכור נלאה אשר נשאה והשיבה לאדמתך - Remember the exhausted one who lifted up (or carried), and bring her back to Your land." The standard translations assume that this means "the exhausted nation who received Your favour" or "the exhausted nation who bore suffering," because they can't identify an antecedent for what it was that the nation lifted up/carried/bore. But the antecedent is that list of korbanot - "Remember the exhausted one, who lifted up all of these offerings, and bring her back to Your land."

3. And building off of #2, there is another layer of association, which turns Yeshayah's criticism of our festivals on its head.
In Yeshayah 1:14, Gd says that He hates our holidays, they are burdensome to Him, and נלאתי נשוא, "I am exhausted from carrying them."
Our poet reverses the line, describing us as נלאה אשר נשאה, the exhausted one, who carried the korbanot. Gd cannot tell us that He rejects our festivals and is tired of them; we exhausted ourselves, bringing those korbanot to Gd on those festivals, and we claim that merit for ourselves.

So there's a lot a going on here - all of which leads me to Ibn Ezra on Kohelet 5:1, in which he protests loudly against davening with piyutim which require this sort of detective work in order to make sense of them. I tend to agree...

[Added note: I just saw footnote 80 in the Goldschmidt machzor for Succot here, attesting to a late (17th century?) origin for this piyut, and noting its mystical character. Interesting.]

Monday, October 10, 2016

Asking for Help on Yom Kippur? (Derashah, Yom Kippur 5777)

Some of you may remember my 2012 blog post, "G-d, please bring me back my son". This is directly related. 

The Ari’s Prayer
Rabbi Moshe Alshich was one of the leading sages of the city of Tzefat in the middle of the 16th century. Ordained by Rabbi Yosef Karo, he was expert in Tanach, Talmud, Halachah and Kabbalah. But as Rabbi Chaim Vital reported, Rabbi Alshich’s son converted to Islam. Distraught, Rabbi Alshich went to Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari z”l for help. The Ari gave him a text to recite in the daily amidah:

May it be Your will, HaShem, our Gd and Gd of our ancestors, that You tunnel beneath Your throne of honour[1] and receive the repentance of so-and-so, for Your right hand is extended to receive those who return. Blessed are You, Gd, who desires repentance.

In ensuing generations, the Ari’s appeal to Gd for intervention appeared in multiple, increasingly stronger texts. In the 18th century, Rav Zvi Hirsch Kaidanover added, “יהופך לבבם לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם”, May You cause their hearts to be reversed, to perform Your will wholeheartedly. Gd, make them repent!

The question
While the Ari z”l perhaps pioneered this prayer, he was far from the first to suggest praying for Gd to help people follow a proper path:
·         Dovid haMelech davened: “May HaShem, Gd of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael, remember eternally my dedication of materials for the Beit haMikdash, and therefore turn the nation’s hearts to Him. May He give my son Shlomo a complete heart to guard His mitzvot and laws.[2]
·         And the Talmud speaks of praying for Gd’s assistance with teshuvah; think of the classic story of the local gang who tormented Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir davened for them to die; his wife, Beruriah, davened that they repent.[3] And the conclusion seems to follow Beruriah’s view.

In truth, praying for someone to return is a dangerous game; it can easily feed into facile self-righteousness. Who am I to decide that someone needs teshuvah - and needs help doing teshuvah? And maybe they don’t want my help at all; maybe they view me as a busybody! But the idea is there, with a solid pedigree in Dovid, Beruriah and the Ari z”l. It requires cautious humility, but we are indeed empowered to ask Gd to help others repent.[4]

We could ask many questions about the Ari’s prayer, and the examples of Dovid haMelech and Beruriah, but here’s one fundamental problem: How can we ask Gd to help with teshuvah? We are taught that Gd will not seek to control יראת שמים, that emotional awe which is so often the driving force impelling our return![5] How can we expect Gd to break that rule?

I am far from the first to ask this question. The Maharsha[6] offered one suggestion, and the Ben Ish Chai[7] offered another.[8] But I would like to suggest a third approach, which is important not only if we daven for others to repent, but also in davening for help with our own teshuvah process.

An answer from Eliyahu
In the middle of the era of the first Beit haMikdash, at the height of the reign of King Achav and Queen Izevel, at the apex of influence of the prophets of the Baal and Asherah over the Jewish people, Eliyahu haNavi issued an invitation for a showdown, a duel of dieties. In one corner, hundreds of prophets of idolatry; in the other, lonely Elijah. Both would attempt to summon fire from the heavens to consume their offering. At stake: The faith of a nation.

The priests of Baal batted first; they struggled mightily, they cried out and capered and cut themselves, while Eliyahu mocked them – and no fire came. At last afternoon arrived, and Eliyahu addressed Gd. He declared, “HaShem, Gd of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael![9] Let it be known today that You are Gd in Israel, and I am Your servant, and all I have done has been at Your word. Answer me, Gd, answer me, and this nation will know that You are Gd -” And then he spoke fateful words, “For You have turned their hearts backward, ואתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית.” And at that, fire descended from the sky and consumed the totality of the offering – the animal, the wood, the stones of the altar, the dirt, even the water Eliyahu had poured over the altar.[10]

“For You have turned their hearts backward!” As explained by Rabbi Elazar and most classic commentators,[11] Eliyahu here launched an accusation at Gd: it’s Your fault that they sinned! You invested them with a yetzer hara driving them to sin, and You have failed to provide a counter-inspiration.

Long before this, Moshe accused Gd of setting up the Jews for their sin with the Golden Calf,[12] but Eliyahu went further than Moshe. Moshe only asked Gd to forgive the Jews; Eliyahu demanded that Gd act constructively, and provide the impetus which would lead to our national return.

This may be what permitted the Ari’s prayer for Divine help. Gd invested each of us with a set of desires – ego, insecurity, lust, greed, laziness, rebelliousness, and so on. Assuredly, there was good reason for doing this; those traits even work to our advantage, at times. But the decision to design each human baby anew with these traits brings with it Eliyahu’s charge – ואתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית, You have led them astray! We know You want us to repent and to do right, so please help us out. Don’t rob us of free will, but give us a sign, as You did at Har haKarmel, to help us see the truth. Or decrease the temptations with which we struggle. Help us.[13]

We lack the righteous track record of Eliyahu HaNavi, such that we could independently utter his intrepid demands with our mouths; blaming G-d is a popular sport, but Eliyahu’s righteous outrage seems a bit contrived on the lips of such willing participants in sin. Nonetheless, the Ari harnessed Eliyahu’s message and taught us that in this case we may use those words as well. It is legitimate and meaningful for us to daven to HaShem to balance things out, and to help those who have sinned to return.[14]

For ourselves
In the standard Yom Kippur davening, we already make use of Eliyahu’s approach for ourselves. At every amidah of Yom Kippur, after we perform viduy acknowledging our sins, we turn to HaShem with this request:

יהי רצון מלפניך, ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי, שלא אחטא עוד
May it be Your will – HaShem, my Gd, and Gd of my ancestors, that I not sin again.

It’s Eliyahu’s principle at work: We are entitled to claim assistance from Gd.
·         We are obligated to perform cheshbon hanefesh, to account for our past deeds.
·         We are obligated to regret, to make amends, and to apologize.
·         We are obligated to devise methods by which we will replicate our good deeds and avoid replicating our transgressions in the future.
·         But at each step, we are within our rights to say to HaShem, אתה הסבות את לבם אחורנית. I am doing my best – but I need Your help to clean up the mess I’ve made.

And it’s an obligation to do so for others
We have seen two points: We are justified in turning to HaShem for help with our own teshuvah, and we are empowered to turn to HaShem for help with the teshuvah of others. But there is one more step we must take.

Rabbi Elazar Azikri was part of the Ari’s 16th century circle. He compiled a book of mitzvot called Sefer Charedim, and in it he also addressed the idea of praying for others to repent – and he wrote,

כשם שחייב אדם להתפלל על עצמו כך חייב להתפלל על פושעי ישראל... שישובו בתשובה
Just as one must pray for himself, so one must pray for the sinners of Israel… to repent.[15]

What is the nature of this obligation? What obligates us to pray on behalf of the teshuvah of others?
·         One might suggest that it is a function of the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem; we are commanded to increase love of Gd in the world.[16]
·         One might suggest that it’s an act of chesed; we hold doors for others, we give tzedakah, and we try to help others to repent.
·         One might suggest it’s part of the mitzvah of tochachah; we are to educate others so that they don’t sin, and we help them avoid sinning in other ways – like by davening for their return.
·         But we might look at it as a function of being a member of a community; it’s about ערבות, our mutual responsibility. My mitzvot are not complete until everyone’s mitzvot are complete – and so I must humbly ask Gd to help others to repent, too.

In a moment, we will stand as a community and commemorate our extended family – victims of the Shoah, victims of terror, and the fallen of the Machteret and the IDF. Individuals will recall immediate family members.

The main purpose is to daven and pledge tzedakah on behalf of those who have passed away, but we may also draw on their example. Kedoshim, many of whom acted heroically for others in the worst of situations. Soldiers who gave their lives to defend their brethren. Family members who raised, nurtured and protected their loved ones.

May we be inspired by their example:
·         to daven not only for our own teshuvah, but for the teshuvah of others.
·         To use the words of the Ari z”l, or to use our own words.
·         And to ask Hashem to be a partner in our own teshuvah, and in the teshuvah of our nation.

Eliyahu was correct – HaShem has had a part in our errors. But HaShem is צופה לרשע וחפץ בהצדקו, as we say in the piyut of וכל מאמינים, “He sees the wicked person, and desires his reform.” Or as some versions actually say, “וחפץ להצדיקו, Gd sees the wicked person and wishes to make him righteous.[17]” May this be the year when Gd acts on this wish, for us and for all around us. ד' חפץ למען צדקו, יגדיל תורה ויאדיר.

[1] See Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10:2, re the teshuvah of Menasheh
[2] Divrei haYamim I 29:18-19, paraphrased
[3] Berachos 10a; and see Abba Chilkiyah’s wife in Taanis 23b, and Moshe Rabbeinu in Sotah 14a from Yeshayah 53:12
[4] For an opposing view for which there is no room in this derashah, see
[5] Berachos 33b, among other sources
[6] Maharsha to Berachos 10a. Similarly, see Chazon Ish cited by R’ Yehudah Lavi ben David in Beit Hillel.
[7] Ben Ish Chayil Shabbat Shuvah 1
[8] I cite both in a shiur available on-line at
[9] It is interesting to note that Dovid, too, in his abovecited prayer for Gd to turn the hearts of the Jews toward Gd, invoked the Gd of “Avraham, Yitzchak and Yisrael”.
[10] Melachim I 18:36-38
[11] Berachot 31b; note Rav Saadia Gaon’s alternative approach, reading this in the manner of Dovid’s request, “Please turn their hearts backward [to You].” And see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 6:3, Shemonah Perakim 8, and Daat Mikra to Melachim I 18:37.
[12] Berachos 32a
[13] As indeed Gd promised He would, in Yechezkel 36:26-27
[14] One may note a similar idea used to explain Gd’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart against the makkos
[15] Sefer Chareidim, Mitzvot haTeluyot b’Eretz Yisrael 5. This is also seen in the version of the Ari’s tefillah presented in Tefillah l'Dovid, by R' Chaim Dovid Amar, talmid of the Or haChaim, 18th century Morocco (
[16] Raavad contends that this is the basis for the mitzvah of aiding conversion to Judaism
[17] See Yechezkel 18:21-23, as noted in the Goldschmidt machzor

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Defining "Middle Age"

A morbid thought occurred to me in the run-up to Rosh HaShanah (I am post-dating this for after Yom Tov; it's too sad for Erev):

Middle Age is when you stop davening for what you want to happen, and start davening instead regarding what you are afraid will happen...

There is a great deal to say about this, but do you know what I mean?