Monday, September 17, 2018

Davening, Fast and Slow (Derashah for Yom Kippur 5779)

Here is my current draft; feedback (especially before Yom Kippur!) wanted...

I’d like to dedicate my derashah this morning in memory of Ari Fuld, HY”D. I was in school with Ari, and his older brother Donny. As most of you know, Ari was murdered this week by a terrorist in the Gush. That’s how he died; at the end of the derashah, I’ll have more to say about how he lived.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
In a 2011 study, researchers reviewed parole decisions by Israeli judges.[1] They found that judges who had just returned from a food break approved about 65% of parole requests. That percentage dropped in the ensuing hours, to the point that rulings just before the next food break rejected almost all parole requests. Then, after the food break, they went right back to 65%.
Another study, this one out of MIT in 2006.[2] They asked students and executives to participate in an auction. For each item, they asked the participants to first record the last two digits of their social security numbers as though that was their bid. Then they asked them to enter an actual bid. Believe it or not – people with higher social security digits bid up to 346% more than those with lower numbers. For example: On a cordless keyboard, the people with digits between 00 and 19 bid an average of $16; those with digits between 80 and 99 bid an average of $56.
Educated, experienced judges; students and executives at MIT! How could they be so easily influenced by appetite, and irrelevant numbers?
Starting about twenty years ago, Professors Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann[3] sought to explain these and other cognitive slips by pointing to research[4] which shows that our brains consume more energy than most other parts of the body. As Kahnemann wrote, “When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops.” (I don’t know how many calories you burn by listening to this derashah, but I know I burned a lot of them composing it.)
In 2002, Kahnemann won the Nobel Prize for his work, which enshrined in scientific history something we all intuited in high school: Concentration uses energy; therefore, our brains avoid doing it. To the extent possible, we get by with what Kahnemann calls shallow “System 1” thinking, using approximations of the world around us and loose methods of problem-solving, to conserve energy. Only when forced to concentrate, such as due to a sense of danger, do we go to the more thorough, intense and precise “System 2” thinking.
This is why the parole decisions become more negative as the judges’ blood sugar drops; it’s easier to be machmir. And this is why the MIT bidders were influenced by entering random digits before bidding – they didn’t focus carefully, and so they were subliminally influenced by the social security digits they entered.

Davening, Fast and Slow
Kahnemann’s insight regarding thinking is important beyond behavioural economics; here in this room, and all around the BAYT, we can observe a related phenomenon – System 1 Davening and System 2 Davening.
From the vantage point of Torah and halachah, System 2 davening is the goal – an intense religious experience. But more often, we are like the Israeli judges and MIT bidders. Witness the passage from the Talmud Yerushalmi[5] in which one sage admitted, “When I stand in Shemoneh Esreih, I count birds.” Another acknowledged, “I count the bricks in the wall!" And a third confessed, "I'm grateful for my head, because when I arrive at Modim it bows on its own", even if I'm not thinking about the words! As Tosafot[6] said, even our greatest sages have had trouble concentrating for davening.
But what can we do about this? Today is a landmark opportunity to ask Hashem for a clean slate, how can we avoid falling into the automated System 1?

Medical answers
There are some great solutions for the problem of System 1 thinking; Professor Pat Croskerry from Dalhousie has done remarkable work in teaching doctors how to avoid System 1 pitfalls when seeing patients.[7] But these methods are hard to apply in the middle of the day on Yom Kippur. One step, for example, is to be well-fed to avoid the low blood-sugar phenomenon… good luck with that today. So what can we do now, right here?[8]

The Importance of Emotion
One answer may be to turn to an aspect of our personalities which is more powerful than our thoughts: Our emotions.

Psychologists and philosophers have long debated the role of emotions; already in 1890, American philosopher William James wrote that he was tired of the efforts in the field, and would prefer to listen to “verbal descriptions of the shapes of the rocks on a New Hampshire farm” rather than read papers on the role of emotions.[9] But I think a key element suggested by evolutionary biologists is useful here: our emotions are activated when issues of survival are raised.[10] Our intellect solves problems; our emotions help us survive.

Because our intellects aren’t always alert to the stakes and threats at hand, we fall into System 1 thinking, or System 1 davening. But when circumstances trigger fear or love or anger or sympathy, that overpowers the intellect, energizing us, stimulating our nervous system, our endocrine system, our circulatory system, and forcing us to focus.

Further – the more vital an emotion, the more intense the sense that survival is at stake, the greater the power to command our attention. Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik[11] made this point; he described a man in pursuit of an aveirah so sweet, so desirable, that he steamrolls his intellect in pursuit of the opportunity. But on the way to his rendezvous, as he races across a frozen lake, his foot slips – and suddenly, the thunderclap of fear for his life overwhelms all that he had been feeling a moment earlier and grabs the reins ; the more vital the emotion, the tighter its grip.

Applying this to our tefillah and teshuvah
This is how we can break out of System 1 davening – by summoning vital emotions which compel our concentration.

  •     Music can summon those emotions; 900 years ago, Rabbi Yehudah haChasid[12] wrote that when we daven we should find tunes which will draw our minds into rhythm with the words we are saying, whether they are psalms of thanksgiving or anguished pleas. I find certain tunes do this for me; I say almost none of the piyutim in the repetition of the amidah, but I try to sing וכל מאמינים and כי אנו עמך, because the memories they evoke for me summon tears of hope and joy which, for me, are life itself.
  •     A memory of an emotional experience can do it. Over a century ago, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rav Kalonymus Kalman Schapira, was approached by young men who wished to refine their personal spirituality. In response, he wrote a book called בני מחשבה טובה, and in that book[13] he counseled that whenever we become excited, whenever we feel extreme joy or love or sorrow or fear, we commit those feelings to memory, and then we call forth those feelings when we are ready to perform mitzvot, and to daven. For me, I can call forth the image of my mother giving me a berachah before Yom Kippur.
  •     Recalling a loved one can do it. Moments ago, people recited Yizkor and remembered relatives who have passed on – the emotions those relatives summon in our hearts are valuable, too. And for those of us with the good fortune to be able to step out for Yizkor – we can still think of people like Ari Fuld הי"ד. Ari’s widow, entering Yom Kippur without him. Ari’s four children. Ari’s parents.

If low blood sugar and exhaustion undermine our concentration, then let us jumpstart our emotions – with a tune, with a memory, with a loved one, with something which will alert us to the intensity of the moment, the magnitude of the opportunity of כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם [14] to start again with a clean slate. Then we will be able to daven a System 2 davening, with a full heart and a dedicated mind.

An article about Ari Fuld appeared on in 2007;[15] it described his deployment in Lebanon as a paratrooper during the Second Lebanon War. Every day, before heading into battle, his unit would say Viduy, as we will at musaf, minchah and neilah. And one day, 28 kilometers deep in Lebanon, they came under direct attack by Hizballah. Two groups of soldiers fell to rocket fire, and Ari was tasked with leading a group of soldiers to retrieve as many bodies as he could. As he described it, “We left most of our protection behind, and all of our gear. All I had on me were my Tefillin, a book of Psalms, and some other holy writings. Oh -- and bullets. A whole lot of bullets.”
They took just ten steps out of the orchard where they had been hiding, and then they heard a whistle – and seconds later, three missiles landed right where they had been, in the orchard. Ari felt blood coming from him; he had been hit by a piece of a mortar. The medic found that the shrapnel had gone through his protective vest, but had miraculously stopped there – he was safe, for the moment.
When they made it back to Israel, Ari was inspired to take a year off from his career, to devote himself to study Torah. And after the year was over, he turned down financial opportunity, choosing instead to join the staff of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh. He displayed that mortar shrapnel in his home, beside his kiddush cup and menorah, as a sign of the miracle of his survival.
I tell this story for three reasons:
First: Because I think it’s important that we remember Ari not as yet another casualty, but as a remarkable human being and Jew.
Second: Because by following his inspiration to take time off to learn Torah, Ari demonstrated what we have been talking about – using emotion to override life’s automatic gear and focus our energies.
And third: Because when we say viduy today, we can call the viduy of Ari’s unit to mind, and they can inspire us to abandon System 1 davening, and invest in System 2.

Ari said of the shrapnel he kept, “That warped piece of iron that you're looking at... it looks like a piece of garbage - but that's my miracle.” May his story inspire us to our own miracle, to a day of davening which is not about counting birds, or bricks, or the moments left in the fast, but instead about confronting our deepest truths, connecting with Hashem, admitting and apologizing for our wrongdoing and truly committing ourselves to growth, and so earning a clean slate and a גמר חתימה טובה.

[1] Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA,
[3] See, for example, Thinking, Fast and Slow pg 42
[5] Yerushalmi Berachos 2:4. There are variant explanations of אפרחייא
[6] Tosafot Rosh haShanah 16b and Bava Batra 164b [But see Pnei Moshe (they were distracted by Torah), Pri Tzaddik to Vayyeshev,]
[7] See Diagnostic Failure: A Cognitive and Affective Approach and
[8] For my shiur for doctors, see Also, my shiur on cognitive bias and teshuvah is at
[10] For example: Evolutionary Explanations of Emotions, Human Nature 1:3 (1990); The Nature of Emotions, American Scientist 89:4 (2001)
[11] Beit haLevi to Parshat Yitro
[12] Sefer Chasidim 158
[13] אות ח-יא
[14] Vayikra 17: For on this day Gd will accept your atonement, to purify you

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Derashah for Rosh HaShanah 5779: The Wounded Prayer

I haven't posted anything on here in ages, and I have no idea who is reading, but if anyone is, here is the derashah I intend to present on the second day of Rosh HaShanah:

Rav Schachter’s Tefillah
Berachos from tzaddikim are a dime a dozen in certain circles – but not generally in YU circles. In YU, the normal story is of the fellow who went to Rav Soloveitchik and asked him for a berachah, and Rav Soloveitchik responded, “What are you, an apple?” So that makes the following story,[1] which I will abbreviate somewhat, remarkable.
It was 2001, and Rav Herschel Schachter was in Israel with his son, Yummy, with whom I verified this story. On the night before they were leaving Israel, they forgot a suitcase in a taxi. They didn’t know what to do – but it worked out. A a later passenger recognized Rav Schachter’s name on the tag, and told the driver that Rav Schachter is “the Baba Sali of American Ashkenazim.” The driver contacted an Anglo he knew, who happened to be in the same Miluim unit as a relative of Rav Schachter, and so the bag came back. But that’s not the important part of the story.
When the driver brought the bag, he wanted a moment with Rav Schachter. The driver grabbed his hands and started crying; he said, “Rabbi, my wife and I have been married for 14 years and we have no children. Please give us a berachah for a child.” Rav Schachter holds the driver’s hands, cries with him, and says to him, “You are going to be blessed with a child within the next year.”
The driver leaves, and Yummy demands of his father: “How could you say that to him? You have no idea! They’ve been married for 14 years!” To which his father replies, “Yummy, we’re going to daven for him.”
About a year later, it’s Simchas Torah. During the dancing, Yummy sees a young man trying to approach his father. Yummy asks what he wants. The young man says he had just been in Israel, and on a cab ride the driver had heard him speaking English. The driver asked if he knew Rav Schachter, and when he said Yes, the driver asked him to pass along a message: He and his wife had just had a baby boy.
Yummy asks his father, “Did you daven for him?” And his father replied, with tears in his eyes, “Every day. Three times a day.”
I bring this story as neither prescription nor consolation; I am well aware that tefillos are not always answered positively, and that people who are experiencing difficulty having children will not necessarily find comfort in this event. I bring this story because I think it says something important about tefillah, and why and how we daven.

Let’s go back more than 3000 years, to yesterday’s haftorah. Chanah, the outstandingly righteous[2] wife of Elkanah, has no children; her husband, Elkanah, marries a second wife, Penina.[3] Penina produces children, and torments Chanah for being unable to do the same. And every year, they go through the same routine: the family travels to the Mishkan, they bring korbanot, and Chanah sits at the family feast without an appetite.

But one year, the narrative changes. After the feast ends, Chanah davens – and it’s not your standard tefillah. As the gemara explains based on cues in the text, Chanah launches an aggressive assault on Gd. She calls Gd by the sacred name צבקות, Master of Multitudes - she is the first person in the Torah to do so![4] But in the talmudic read, she means “Master of Multitudes” not as an honour, but as an assault. She argues angrily, “Master of Multitudes! Of all of the multitudes of multitudes You created in Your world, why are You too stingy to give me just one child?”

And Chanah, with her aggressive, angry demand, succeeds; on Rosh HaShanah, Hashem remembers Chanah and grants her a child, Shemuel.

And a third story of unusual tefillah accepted, this one from 2100 years ago. It was a year of terrible drought; Succot came and went, as did Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, and still there was no rain. The people sent for Choni haMe’agel – Choni the Circle-Drawer. He davened for rain, but nothing happened. Then he drew a circle and stood inside it, and swore by Gd’s Name that he would not leave the circle until Hashem displayed mercy. Rain began to drizzle, just enough to free him from his oath – but Choni remained in the circle, sayng, “That’s not what I asked for; I want rain that will fill cisterns.” The rain then poured down with destructive force, and Choni again complained, “That’s not what I asked for; I want rain of berachah.” And beneficial rain then fell – but to the point that it created dangerous flooding, and so Choni davened once more, “This is not the rain Your people need!” And the rain relented.[5] Like Chanah, Choni was answered with חן from Hashem.

Why are these tefillot answered?!
Three stories of accepted prayers, and I don’t understand: Why does Hashem listen to any of them?
·         Why does Hashem honour Rav Schachter’s guarantee?
·         Why does Hashem accept Chanah’s demand?
·         Why does Hashem go along with Choni’s very-specific tailorings of the rain he received?
I believe the answer lies in understanding what davening is all about. Why are all of us here, right now, beyond a sense of obligation – what are we doing when we daven?

Tefillah as Demonstration of Emunah
Rambam[6] cast davening as an act of devotion; the Torah says we are to serve Hashem with our hearts, and this refers to prayer. So we humble ourselves before the Creator of the Universe, in sincere service. But within that view, the point is for me to express devotion, not to guarantee people success, or make aggressive demands, or stipulate exacting specifications on a wish list!

But there is another vision of why we are all here in this room. Ramban[7] argued that if tefillah is a biblical mitzvah at all, it is actually a mitzvah of expressing emunah. When we have trouble, when we experience a need, when we are in pain, we are summoned to faith, to the trust that Hashem has the capacity to help us, and to turn to Hashem for that assistance. Even though we all know of prayers that have not yet yielded berachah, tefillah is about having that emunah that Hashem can assist us.

This brand of tefillah is not a display of praise or requests, per se; this brand of tefillah is a demonstration of a profound relationship with Gd which sees through the world we observe with our eyes and finds inspiration in our heart’s awareness of our Creator.
·         This is what Rav Schachter expressed, with his guarantee; he channelled the certainty of Ramban that Hashem possesses the ability to help.
·         And this is what Choni did; his demands were remarkable, but they also rested on the bedrock of unshakable faith that Gd could help them in their state of need.

Chanah’s Aggressive Demand is also an act of Emunah
But one more step, because Chanah’s prayer requires additional explanation. How do anger and aggression express emunah? In a world of ahavah and yirah, of love and reverence for Gd, of shevach and hodaah – thanks and praise – where is there room for anger and aggression?

I think it depends on where the anger and aggression originate.
·         A tantrum, venting frustration with a universe that does not comply with our expectations, is not about emunah.
·         But anger that comes from wounded emunah, faith in a vision of Gd that is not visible in the world around us – that’s still faith.

When a Jew holds the Torah’s religious view of Hashem as the Gd of Justice and Mercy, and events around her do not meet the standard set for Gd by the Torah itself, then a sense of betrayal can set in. Where is the Gd who protected Yosef? Where is the Gd who took us through Yam Suf? Where is the Gd who led our ancestors into Eretz Yisrael? And then the Jew has two options: To reject and walk away, or to faithfully appeal to the Gd described by the Torah. [8]

I believe there is no contradiction between love of Gd, and anger when the Gd we love is not visible in our lives. I believe there is no contradiction between reverence for Gd, and an aggressive demand that Gd’s own values should be manifest in our world. Chanah’s ahavas Hashem and yiras Hashem are intact.

The proof of that ahavah and yirah is that Chanah chooses not to walk away; instead, she faithfully appeals to the Gd described by the Torah - a Gd who would want, who should want, to give her a child. She cries out צבקות! She recognizes Gd as not only the Master of multitudes, but the Creator of those multitudes. Axiomatically, from the start of Bereishit, Gd is on the side of life, generating it and perpetuating it. Chanah believes that it is inconceivable that Gd should deny her request to bring more life into this world to serve Gd. And so she leans in assertively because she knows Gd, and she knows what Gd should do to create life.

This is why we are here – as Ramban said, as Rav Schachter and Choni displayed, we are here to express our emunah that Hashem can give us a good year ahead, that Hashem wants to give us a year of berachah ahead.

For some of us, life this past year has been good, full of simchah; we have every reason to believe, and we gratefully daven to a Gd who has met and exceeded our expectations. But for some, life has been hard; emunah in Gd has been pushed to its limit, and perhaps beyond. Then we face Chanah’s choice – do we walk away, or do we lean in? Gd’s feelings are not so easily bruised; let us coronate Hashem as befits this day, but let us also express our sense of pain and betrayal, even as we assert that we know Hashem can give us what we need.

Even on the day of Divine coronation, seemingly the least likely day for aggression to be acceptable, Hashem answered Chanah’s aggressive prayer positively,[9] and the same will be true for us – if our emotion is not simply a matter of venting frustration, but rather it bespeaks faith that our vision is in line with Hashem’s vision.
·         If we want parnasah in order to be able to feed our families and support the needy, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
·         If we want health in order to be able to fulfill mitzvot and improve our world, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
·         If we want friendships in order to be able to build community and create chesed, causes which Hashem claims to endorse -
Then we need not limit ourselves to a meek plea; we can make a demand. We can be aggressive. We can say, “This is what You want, too!”

The Shofar
We are about to blow the shofar. In Tanach, the shofar plays multiple roles, all related to our emunah:
·         ד' אלקיו עמו ותרועת מלך בו – It is the horn declaring Divine majesty and honour;
·         היתקע שופר בעיר ועם לא יחרדו – It is the siren making us tremble in fear as we are called to reckoning;
·         But it is also קוֹל שׁוֹפָר שָׁמַעַתְּ נַפְשִׁי תְּרוּעַת מִלְחָמָה, the trumpet of battle, summoning us to aggressive war.

If we believe our requests for the coming year are justified and faithful, then let us sound the trumpet of battle, putting forth our tefillah with forceful faith, and as He did for Chanah, perhaps Hashem will respond to us. May we be blessed with a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, for health, of blessing, of peace and security in Israel and the world over, of nachas and fulfillment and Torah and mitzvot, for the year to come and beyond.

[2] See Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg on Bamidbar 28:4 for a particularly interesting note
[3] Malbim to Shemuel I 1
[4] Berachot 32
[5] Taanit 23a
[6] Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 5
[7] Hasagah to Sefer haMitzvot, Aseh 5
[8] Consider Avraham debating Gd regarding Sdom, and shouting חלילה לך! It is a desecration for You! I have faith in You as the שופט כל הארץ, the Supreme Judge, how could You not carry out justice?
Consider Moshe, who blames Hashem for the Eigel, shouting, ודי זהב, You gave them the gold! I have faith in You as a fair Gd, how could You put the Jews in the position of sinning by abandoning them with the gold for six long weeks?
Or consider Iyov, who calls Gd, צרי, “My enemy”, and yet Gd says of Iyov that he is עבדי, “My loyal servant”. Why? Because all along Iyov kept faith in his vision of Gd as just; his cries of “enemy” came only from his sense of betrayal, that Gd was not living up to His own self-description.
And consider Choni. It’s not the circle that made it happen; it’s his tefillah: “רבש"ע! Master of the Universe! בניך שמו פניהם עלי, Your children have turned to me!” They are Your children – and I have faith in You to deal with them as a parent deals with children! And why have they turned to me for them? “שאני כבן בית לפניך, for I am like a child of Yours,” they have faith that You will deal with me as a parent deals with a child!
[9] For a variety of reasons within the story, it is unlikely that Chanah’s tefillah was voiced on Rosh HaShanah – but it was answered on Rosh HaShanah.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Seventy Years, Still Under Construction (Derashah, Yom ha'Atzmaut 5778)

I was a guest-speaker at a shul this past Shabbat, in honour of Yom ha'Atzmat. I gave this derashah, and liked it enough to re-post it here. But I realize in retrospect (thanks, Batya) that some words of introduction are in order, so you might look at the first two comments on the post, below.

How can we celebrate?
Archaeologists have discovered a 2500-year old letter, dating to the destruction of the first Beit haMikdash. It was from a soldier named Hosheia, a Jewish commander defending our eastern border against the Babylonians. He requested, “Please send the arba minim.[1]

Chief Rabbi of South Africa Warren Goldstein notes that 2500 years later, early in the Yom Kippur War, an IDF commander named Yehoshua sent the same message to headquarters, “Please send the arba minim.[2]

I’ve been asked to speak “in honour of Yom Ha’Atzmaut and the 70th anniversary of Medinat Yisrael”, and the beautiful religious symmetry of those letters from Israel fills me with hope for our nation which has survived both the ancient Babylonians and modern invaders, and continues to seek the arba minim. I can celebrate this.

But then I read the daily headlines of Israel’s internal strife, and I have to wonder about this celebration. A Prime Minister facing criminal charges. Rising levels of poverty. An on-going crisis over drafting yeshiva students. Scandals in the rabbanut over kashrut supervision. Conflict over egalitarianism at the Kotel. Conversion quarrels. The struggle to cope with African migrants. Is this the answer to the millennia-old question of what it looks like when Jews run a country? This doesn’t look like something to celebrate; Yeshayah criticized the Jews of his day who ate and drank and sang when they should have been fasting and crying![3] And really, what have we achieved - is there an honourable mention prize for just reaching 70, no matter what condition the medinah is in?

But perhaps the answer is that terrible problems are not always a cause for grief; from the Torah’s perspective, a crisis can be a catalyst for celebration.

Example 1: Adam and Chavah
This idea goes all the way back to Gan Eden, and the curious way Hashem punished Adam and Chavah.

When the serpent convinced Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, it was not merely via the charms of an attractive fruit. The serpent lured Chavah by promising that if she and Adam would eat from the fruit, והייתם כאלקים, they would be gods, like Hashem. What did Chavah know about Hashem at this point? Rashi explains that they would be יוצרי עולמות – Creators of Worlds. What attracted Chavah and Adam was the capacity to create life.

Given Rashi’s explanation, I would have expected Hashem to punish them by removing all capacity to create – but instead, Hashem gave Chavah and Adam the privilege to bring life into this world! Hashem told Chavah: You will bring life from your body! HaShem told Adam: You will bring life from the ground! What was Hashem doing here?

When we look closer, we realize the genius the Torah is revealing. The human beings wished to be Creators, but to do it quickly and cheaply, just eat a fruit and you become like Hashem. So Hashem taught them that they could indeed create life, but it would involve time and labour and pain. Hashem took their weakness and their flaw, and turned it into an education which would refine them. Hashem converted their aveirah into a building block.

Example 2: Eigel
The same phenomenon takes place millenia later, in this morning’s parshah, as the Mishkan is dedicated. According to Rashi, the Mishkan was created to make up for the catastrophic Eigel [Golden Calf] – but it led to a grand and beautiful and joyous celebration! And even per Ramban,[4] who contended we were always meant to have a Mishkan, the יום השמיני, the eighth day of the Miluim, may have been added just to make up for the Eigel – but this day which was produced by the Eigel was a grand celebration, such that the Sifra calls it יום שמחת לבו, the day of Hashem’s great joy![5] How did the Eigel’s terrible sin, with its death toll in the thousands, lead to יום שמחת לבו?

Because the Eigel was born from a misguided attempt to communicate with Hashem, and the Mishkan turned that desire to communicate with Hashem into a building block for greater success – a success which went on for many centuries of avodas HaShem.

Example 3: זדונות לזכויות
This concept of recognizing an aveirah as a building block is not restricted to the era of the Chumash; it applies to us today, as expressed in a classic gemara. The amora Reish Lakish declared, גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, teshuvah is so great that it converts even intentional sin into merit.[6] How does an intentional aveirah become a source of merit?

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that aveirot teach us lessons. They cause us to feel unsettled and anxious, recognizing that we are out of sync, we have left the proper path. This anxiety triggers what he called העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, the longing and desire to achieve perfection.[7] And so the aveirah becomes not an instant of degradation but a long-term building block, a catalyst for greatness, turning our זדונות into זכויות.

Exercise and Psychology
This phenomenon of destruction which fuels growth[8] appears not only in Torah, but also in Teva [nature].

This is how muscles grow. When we strain our muscles with exercise, we inflict “micro-tears”, small rips in the muscle fibers. Soreness after a workout is a function of those tears. Those tears are what enable muscles to grow; in repairing the tear, we experience hypertrophy, the fibers grow. The tears are our building blocks.

And the growth potential of our mistakes is a core principle in developmental psychology. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. Just gifts given to us to learn from.[9]” Or as a famous athlete once said, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.[10]"

Nature knows: Failure generates success.

In sum: We would prefer not to sin in the first place, but we know our reality. Like the Haggadah, our lives are מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, we start with disgrace and we conclude with glory – and it is the disgrace itself, eating from the fruit in Gan Eden, creating an Eigel, even performing זדונות, which generates that glory.

So keep moving forward!
This is a crucial concept for us to remember and implement personally after an aveirah.
·         We look at what we did wrong, and we ask ourselves what we can learn.
·         We detect the anxiety that comes from an unsettled neshamah.
·         We study the yitzrim which attract us, and figure out how they can become strengths – laziness can keep us from an aveirah, a gossiper can learn to share Torah, a ringleader can organize people for chesed.

When we recognize that our failure can point the way to our success, we will be inspired to follow Shlomo HaMelech’s counsel, כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם – The tzaddik falls seven times, but each time he gets up.[11] Or as Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith re-worded it: "Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall down." And that success will be well worth celebrating.

For Israel Today
Which brings me back to celebrating the 70th birthday of the State of Israel.

The problems and scandals and crises are there. And yes, we continue to face religious problems, in particular. In 1954,[12] Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi said, “We have a strong desire to give our state a religious character where the Torah of Israel will be its law  - though none of us believe that we will succeed, at least not in this generation.” Two generations later, we are still working on it.

But so much social and religious good has been achieved by this State, in facing and addressing its problems. Millions of lives have been saved, from trouble spots all over the world. Many thousands of Jews are only able to study Torah daily thanks to the financial support of the world’s greatest sponsor of Talmud Torah, the State of Israel. That same State of Israel includes Tanach in its public school curriculum. Kiddush HaShem is experienced daily via the actions of visibly observant Jews, from Israeli hospitals and non-profits to sidewalk interactions on Israeli streets to the corridors of the Knesset to the beneficiaries of Israel’s international aid projects.

And the troubles of today will lead to a greater Jewish state tomorrow.
·         The proper solution to Israeli poverty will lead to fulfillment of וחי אחיך עמך.[13]
·         The proper solution to the draft crisis will lead to more Torah study and defense of the medinah.
·         The proper solution at the Kotel will lead to more Jews davening and saying Tehillim.
These problems will turn out to be micro-tears in our national muscle, and they will leave us ever stronger. This is why we celebrate, and thank Hashem for bringing us to this day.

Hopelessness plagued the Jews early in Second Beit HaMikdash, too, in the days of the navi Zecharyah. We were embedded  in an assimilated exile; then we re-gained our homeland through Persian policies of conquest. Most Jews opted to remain in exile. Then the Persians withdrew their permission to build the Beit HaMikdash, and even the Jews who had returned to Israel sank into deep doubt and disappointment; some actually left.[14]

Zecharyah[15] summed up his generation's malaise with three words, “בז ליום קטנות,” We “degrade the day of small achievements.” But then Zecharyah described a vision of Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol, clad in בגדים צואים, filthy clothing representing our exile and poverty and degradation. In this vision, HaShem told a malach to remove Yehoshua’s filthy clothing and to replace it with resplendent Bigdei Kehunah, the glorious garments of the Kohen Gadol. That generation would build on its weak beginnings, and create a glorious structure.

At the age of 70, we are part of our own יום קטנות, struggling to incorporate our mistakes into a process of construction. It’s hard עבודה [work]; we are still under construction. But through Hashem’s orchestration, and our השתדלות [effort], we and our children will see the fruit - and for this we can celebrate.

[1] The set of four plant species used for a mitzvah on Succot
[2] Essay in Sixty Days for Sixty Years, “The Eternal Message”
[3] Yeshayah 22:12-14, and see Taanis 11a
[4] Ramban to Vayikra 9:3
[5] Sifra Miluim 15. And see Haameik Davar to Vayikra 9:1 on what יום שמחת לבו adds to יום חתונתו
[6] Yoma 86b
[7] Orot haTeshuvah 5:6
[8] ירידה לצורך עליה
[10] Michael Jordan, but I don’t want to distract from the derashah
[11] Mishlei 24:16
[12] החק ותועלתו בעיצוב חיי דת במדינה , in the anthology בין ישראל לעמים
[13] The Torah’s imperative to support our brethren
[14] Metzudat David to Nechemiah 7
[15] Zecharyah 4:10