Divrei Torah Archives

For each Jewish holiday, the Rabbinical School faculty write divrei torah (commentaries) that are intended to educate, illuminate and stimulate discussion. The following is an archive of past postings

Parashat VaYeira: Confounding Revelations of G-d
By Vera Broekhuysen

Vayeira begins with a word of clarity: G-d shows G-d’s self to Avraham at Mamre and appears (vayeira) in three men who come to give Avraham the good news of Sarah’s future fertility, the projected birth of Yitzhak. His birth will let Avraham “hayu yihyeh l’goy gadol v’atzum,” will become a great and numerous nation. This par’sha, however, deals mainly in mixed signals, keeping us guessing whether or not G-d’s promise of survival and increase will actually be fulfilled. G-d poses as a question “ham’chaseh ani me’avraham asher ani oseh,” “shall I hide, or cover, from Avraham, what I’m doing?” and we don’t hear that rhetorically.  The events of the par’sha are enough to strike doubt and fear into the most stalwart of hearts.

This par’sha writes its message in the bodies of children. G-d’s actions betray a certain amount of ambivalence towards Avraham and Sarah’s hopes to see their line continue. First they’re promised a child despite their old age, fulfilling the terms of the b’rit which G-d and Avraham have made together, faith for fatherhood. Immediately afterwards, G-d proposes to wipe out an entire city, including Avraham’s nephew Lot – Avraham has to haggle with everything he’s got in order to wrest a bare chance of survival for S’dom from the deity, and his hopes are ultimately frustrated. It falls to Lot’s daughters to secure descendants for S’dom in the wake of G-d’s wrath, but their price is enduring perversion.

The par’sha averts its gaze back to Avraham and Sarah, as Yitzhak is born. Avraham and Sarah’s joy and relief as G-d seems, finally, to honour the covenant, are palpable; the new mother’s delighted laughter sings out in her child’s name. But G-d, in Sarah’s voice, will not let Avraham have his legitimate son and his ben amah, son of a slave, too. Avraham is forced to cast Ishmael out. Yet another nation is promised to Ishmael; but Avraham has lost his eldest child. And then comes the cruelest blow. G-d tells Avraham to take Yitzhak, now his only son, whom he loves, to bind him for sacrifice. Avraham may be spared his son’s death, but when he comes down from Har Moriah, he comes down alone. 

How can a parent be asked to give up their child not once, but twice? How can we keep faith with a G-d that asks such a thing? 

We can look to our own bodies, I think, for trust and a physical b’rit within that speaks louder than words. Bearing children is an act of faith. So is counting on continuity. The Jewish community knows this. Our community here knows this. But our bodies are not made to dwell in bekhi, crying.  Every morning, we can find rinah, song. Not always, not infallibly, but with an amazing regularity, our cells regenerate; involuntarily, we heal. The leaves that litter the ground in fall return as buds in the spring. With Sarah, we are sometimes forced to laugh at the sheer precariousness of our lives and the tenuous nature of our hopes. But like Sarah, and Avraham with her, we take on the work of keeping ourselves open to that laughter’s disbelief turning to joy. An infertile body can become fertile. An estranged child may, in the next chapter of their life, or in our Tanakh, allow the parent to dance at their wedding. Vayeira teaches us that even within a covenant, we cannot expect only blessings – but that within us grace can, always, stop by and make an appearance. 

Mourner's Kaddish: Grasping for Praise in Sorrow
By Marcie Kamerow
4th Year Rabbinical Student

Yitgadal, v'yitkadash Shemei Raba...Exalted and Sanctified is Gd's great name. These words open every  Kaddish prayer that we recite. They are particularly poignant in the Mourner's Kaddish-Kaddish Yatom. Words of praise are recited at times of great sorrow. No mention of death or destruction, and word after word of praise written in an ancient Aramaic. Why now? Why do we recite these words at the least obvious moments? The Mishna in Berachot (Chapter 9 Mishna 5) states that, “A person is obligated to bless on the bad just as they are to bless on the good.” Perhaps, that is one answer to this paradox of a prayer. Simply, we just have to do it. 

Another answer might be found in the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai's poem “A Person in his Life.” He writes the following:

A person in his life doesn’t have time to have
a time for everything.
He doesn't have enough seasons to have a season
for every purpose. Qohelet didn’t get it right when he said that.

A person needs to hate and to love at the same moment,
with the same eyes to cry, and the same eyes to laugh
with the same hands to throw stones, and with the same hands  to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and to forgive and to remember and to forget,
to arrange and to confuse,
to eat and to digest what history elongates
over a great many years.

What Yehuda Amichai highlights is the reality that we can and need to feel contradictory emotions at the same time. Reading Kaddish Yatom through this lens we can learn to recognize the blessings through the words, and hold onto the challenges and the difficult feelings with our heart all at the same time. 

One more possible answer comes in our own liturgy. The Mourner’s Kaddish said in Pseukei Dezimra directly follows Psalm 30. This Psalm ends with the words “Hafachta Mispadi Lmahol Li Pitacta Saki v'Ta'azreni Simcha, Hashem, Elohai Leolam Odeka -You have turned my mourning into dancing, and opened my sack cloth, and made it in to a robe of joy, and for that I will forever thank you.” Maybe in some sense that is also what the words of Kaddish Yatom are trying to do.  By speaking words of praise we can be propelled from a state of mourning to a state of joy.

Whatever reason you accept or perhaps don’t accept right now, the Kaddish Yatom with all of its mixed emotions is there to bring us from mourning to joy. This prayer helps us recognize that among the sadness and loss, we still have something praiseworthy to hold onto, however small our grasp might be.

On Teachers and Students
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Faculty, Rabbinical School

This week of parashat Shoftim is framed by the yahrzeits (anniversary of passing) of a master and disciple. This past Sunday, the 28th of Av, was the yahrzeit of R David HaKohen, the Nazir. Friday, the third of Elul, is the yahrzeit of his teacher, R Avraham Yitshak HaKohen Kook.

Basic outlines of their biographies and work are easily accessible on the internet so I will not reproduce them here. Suffice to note that the Rav Kook is indisputably one of the greatest Jewish mystical masters of the 20th century; it was his disciple, the Nazir, who first edited his writings and made them accessible in book form.

Our generation has seen a great deal of abuse of spiritual power. We have seen spiritual teachers take advantage of their students financially, sexually, emotionally and in many other ways, causing tremendous pain and suffering. Understandably we are very suspicious of the master-disciple relationship, and as a society have often limited ourselves to receiving only intellectual knowledge from teachers, or limited ourselves to short un-committed relationships with teachers.

And yet, the master-disciple relationship is one of the most treasured relationships of our tradition. It is important to understand that the relationship is not the transmission of knowledge. It is rather the relationship which is the context within which knowledge, both intellectual and other, is transmitted, resulting in growth on both sides. Certainly the forms of this relationship must respond to the social upheavals of the 20th century, and particularly to the feminist revolution, which has brought great and blessed change into our world of learning and teaching. Like everything else, this relationship is in the process of becoming, and in my opinion is worth preserving and recreating, despite and in response to the abuses we have seen.

In honor of the beauty and growth possible in such relationships, I offer the following piece. It is a translation of the Nazir’s description of the first time he met R Kook and of the moment he knew that this was his teacher. It appears in the introduction he wrote to the first volume of R Kook’s “Orot HaKodesh” (Lights of Holiness).

May we all merit finding teachers and disciples, and may the merit of all the ancient teachers and disciples be there to support us.

Orot HaKodesh - Introduction
HaRav HaNazir David HaKohen

Twenty seven years ago, I was in Basel, Switzerland, studying the history of Philosophy and its ideas. I was full of thirst and longing for truth, particularly the Israelite truth, when I heard of the master who was then in the east part of the country1. I wrote him a letter, and upon receiving his response, I decided to go meet him.

After immersing myself in the waters of the Rhine, I took the book “Sha’arei Kedusha”2 with me, and full of doubt and expectation, I made my way to the master.

I came to him on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul (5675-1915)3 and found him discussing Halacha with his son. The discussion turned to the philosophy and literature of Greece, and how this wisdom had not satisfied even its original followers. I stayed the night with them.

On my bed at night, my heart knew no rest for my destiny was being decided.

And with the first morning light, I heard steps pacing to and fro. I heard the morning blessings and the recitation of the binding of Isaac sung to a supernal tune from the highest heavens of antiquity4 – “remember the love of the ancient ones..." I listened. I was transformed and I became a different person.

After prayers, I hastened to write a letter to inform that I had found more than I had hoped for. I had found a master for myself.


1)  R Kook had already immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1904 and was the rabbi of Jaffa and the new Jewish settlements. World War I caught him fundraising in Europe, and he spent the rest of the war in Switzerland and England. The meeting with the Nazir occurs in the resort town of St. Galen. At the time, R Kook is 50 years old and the Nazir is 28.

2) Written by R Hayyim Vital, “Shaarei Kedusha” is a guide book to achieving prophecy. The first three parts of the book describe the life you must live if you want to achieve prophecy and the fourth part details unification practices to bring about the experience. While the book (its first three parts) was one of Vital’s most published books, part four was never published until the latter years of the 20th century. The Nazir takes the book with him not in order to study it with R Kook but as a symbolic act expressing his goals and aspirations for the meeting and for the relationship he hopes to develop with the master. Many years later, when R Kook asks him to develop a curriculum for his Yeshiva, the Nazir proposes a curriculum based on the same premise, i.e. preparing people for prophecy. (This curriculum is included in the Nazir’s published diaries.)

3)  In later years, the Nazir made a point of re-enacting this pilgrimage to his teacher every year on Erev Rosh Hodesh Elul. He passed away the day before erev Rosh Hodesh, the 28th of Elul 5732 (1972).

4) This line and the next are quotations from the liturgical introduction to the daily recitation of the Akeidah. “Remember us with help and compassion from the highest heavens of antiquity and remember, for our sake, the love of the ancient ones, Avraham, etc.”

Tish’ah b’Av: From Pain to Judgment to Forgiveness
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Faculty, Rabbinical School
In my understanding, our ritual year cycle is not about knowing or remembering particular beliefs or mytho-historical facts. It is about opening ourselves to certain experiences, and the ritual memory being no more and no less than the portal to that experience.

While some forms of knowledge can be assimilated on the spot, a directed experience, as opposed to a random experience, takes a great deal of preparation. Much of our tradition is, in fact, about preparing for directed experiences. In our daily shacharit, we prepare for the Amidah by saying Psukei D'zimrah and Shema. In our yearly holiday cycle, we begin preparing for Pesah on the Shabbat before Rosh-Hodesh Adar, for Shavuot on Pesah, for Yom-Kippur and Sukkot on Rosh Hodesh Elul. And on the 17th of Tamuz, we begin preparing for Tish'ah b'Av.

What are we preparing for during these three between the 17th of Tamuz and Tish’ah b’Av? How does it fit into the larger year cycle of holidays?

Experiencing the Needs of the Shekhinah

The Ba'al Shem Tov is often quoted as saying that you should pray for the needs of the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God in the world) not for your own. How then, his students ask, is one to know what the needs of the Shekhinah are? You look at your own life, they answer, and through this you can discern the needs of the Shekhinah.

I find this to be a very helpful directive for Tish'ah b'Av. When we evoke and remember our suffering and the destructions we have endured, either personal or national, the point is not just to remember our own suffering. We are using our own experience of suffering to open ourselves to the suffering of the Shekhinah. In other words, the pain of a single starving child is without measure. The pain of a world with hundreds of thousands of starving children is totally beyond comprehension. Each one of these individual experiences of suffering is an expression of something fundamentally wrong in our world. This “fundamental wrong” is what we call the Exile of the Shekhinah – God being manifest in the world in twisted ways born of alienation rather than connection. This is the destruction that we mourn on Tish'ah b'Av and that we dedicate our lives to repairing.

Pain that large can easily become an abstract idea that we connect to only at an intellectual level. We therefore connect to the suffering of the Shekhinah through pain that we have experienced and is real for us. But the point of the Tish'ah b'Av rituals is not to feel sorry for ourselves. The point is to reach at least one moment of identification, of physically crying for the suffering of the Shekhinah.

Managing the Pain

A pain that large can also be overwhelming. The halachot (practices) of Tish'ah b'Av help us work through the pain. The rituals create a vessel that allows for the experience of the mourning; but like the halachot of personal mourning, they also create a vessel to contain the pain and lead us out of it. The depth of the sorrow is the night of Tish'ah b'Av. The road out begins on Tish'ah b'Av day (I think in the morning, but more clearly ritually from noon on), and culminates with the celebrations of the 15th of Av.

For very sensitive people, this pain can also be overwhelming throughout the year. I heard our teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, offer a teaching on coping with suffering based on his reading of Genesis 42:1:

וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם
Jacob saw that there is sustenance in Egypt

Rabbi Green teaches that both meanings of the word “shever” are true in this verse. Ya'akov Avinu saw that there was brokenness (shever) in Egypt that he was called upon to fix, but also that there was sustenance (shever) for him there. This I remember of what I heard from my teacher and the following is my understanding: amidst all the brokenness in the world, we are called upon to choose particular narrow places, specific aspects of brokenness that are the focus of our individual work, always remembering the Talmudic injunction:

תפשת מרובה לא תפשת
One who grabs too much, grabs nothing.

For the sake of tikkun olam (healing the world), it is important that the work we choose be sustainable both in terms of providing a sense of personal meaning and enthusiasm and also simple physical sustenance. The brokenness we address should be one that also sustains us.

Tish'ah b'Av in the Year Cycle: Judging God

It is important to remember that the process of forgiveness that culminates on Yom Kippur begins on the 17th of Tamuz. According to the Mishnah (Ta'anit 4), on the 17th of Tamuz, Moshe came down from the mountain, saw the people worshiping the golden calf and shattered the tablets. On Yom Kippur, Moshe came down from the mountain with the second tablets and the people knew that they had been forgiven.

One of the important lessons of the ten days of teshuva from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is that you cannot be forgiven unless you yourself can forgive and that neither is possible without honesty. The judgment day of Rosh HaShanah is a call for brutal honesty, looking truthfully at who we are and everything we have done, evaluating what we are proud of and what needs to change. It is the forgiveness of Yom Kippur that allows us to transcend and utilize the past and go forward with the change we have recognized we need. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we have the practice of asking forgiveness from every person we may have hurt over the past year. This practice is inspired by the Mishnah (Yoma 8) that says that Yom Kippur will not atone for sins between people unless the person who was hurt forgives the perpetrator. I think that this is meant to allow every person to be a forgiver before entering Yom Kippur. If you are not able to forgive, how could you believe that you yourself could be forgiven? And if you were able to “extend beyond your limits” and forgive another who had harmed you, certainly the Holy Blessed One, who is known as “your friend and the friend of your parents” (Proverbs 27:10), can do the same.

But, the truth is that we must go through the whole process of forgiveness with God as well. We need to forgive God, and not just our human friends, before we can be forgiven. In order to do that, we need to face honestly and without apologetics the pain and suffering that are part of living in this world – or in mythic language, the suffering that God has inflicted upon us. That is the essence of the month of Av.

Within the month Av, the ninth day is God’s Day of Judgment – the one day a year that we refer to God not as the “God of my salvation, whom I trust and do not fear" (Isaiah 12:2) but rather as “God who was like an enemy... who massacres with no compassion" (Lamentations 2:5, 21). The ninth day of Av is the day we acknowledge Hurban Yerushalayim. We usually translate this as the “destruction of Jerusalem,” but Jerusalem is also “yir'eh shalem” a vision of wholeness. Tish’ah b’Av is the destruction of the vision of wholeness that we may have had, that may even be the driving force of our life, that is now shattered on the rock of evil and suffering. When we acknowledge that shattering, our love gives birth to disappointment, anger and deep sadness.

But if we cannot be that brutally honest, how will we ever forgive God? And if we cannot forgive God, how will we ever allow ourselves to be forgiven?

Forgiving God

The cycle does not end with God’s Day of Judgment. Following Tish’ah b’Av is the day we forgive God – the 15th of Av. This is why the Mishnah (Ta'anit 4) says, “Israel's most joyous days were the 15th of Av and Yom Hakippurim.” On the 15th of Av, we forgive the Blessed One; and on Yom Kippur, the Blessed One forgives us. They are days of coming together, of love and hope.

Of this period of the year, it is taught,
כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו, הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ
God told of the strength of Her deeds to Her people

The numerical value of “ko’ah” (strength) is 28 and the word “higeed” (told) can also be understood, based on its root, as drawn. In these 28 days, between the 17th of Tamuz and the 15th of Av, power is drawn to the people who sit in judgment over the deeds of the Holy Blessed One.

Getting to Fifty
Some texts evoking thoughts about Shavu’ot as the day following the 49th day
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Faculty, Rabbinical School


Shavo’ut is unique among the biblical pilgrimage holidays in that it is not identified by date . It is celebrated on the day following the completion of counting seven weeks, or forty-nine days beginning on the day after the celebration of Pesah.

In the Zohar, these forty-nine days are connected to the rabbinic notion of “gates of understanding”.

When the Israelites were in Egypt they defiled themselves with all kinds of impurity, so much that they were subservient to forty-nine forces of impurity. The blessed Holy One delivered them from the service of all other powers, and brought them into forty-nine gates of understanding that parallel them [the forty-nine forces of impurity]… This is why we count them [the forty-nine days of the Omer], beginning from the holiday of Pesah…  Each day we are delivered from one force of impurity and brought into one force of purity.

Following this Zoharic story, the revelation of Shavu’ot is the culmination of a purification process. Shavu’ot, the fiftieth day, follows accessing all forty-nine gates of understanding. Interestingly, the rabbinic source for this idea (see below) actually has fifty gates of understanding rather than forty-nine, though admittedly only forty-nine are accessible to humans. What is this fiftieth gate? How does this idea of an inaccessible completion relate to the celebration of Shavu’ot on the fiftieth day? In the following sections I will address these questions first in the original rabbinic texts and then in two later Hasidic developments of this theme.

Part I

The notion of fifty gates of Binah–understanding is attributed in the Bavli to Rav and Shemuel.

Rav and Shemuel both taught: Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world, and all were given to Moshe except one. Of this it says: “You made him/them slightly less than God” (Psalms 8:6).

Psalms 8:6 is commonly presented in Rabbinic literature as a complaint of ministering angels jealous of humans. While in the earliest texts (Tosephta Sotah 6:5) the object of jealousy is the first Adam, in a later text the jealousy is directed towards Moshe who has come to heaven to receive the Torah.

At that time the ministering angels gathered to criticize Moshe. They said: Master of the universe, “Why should You remember humans, and keep going back to the son of Adam? (Why) make them only slightly less than God, and crown them with honor and glory? etc.” (Psalms 8 5-9).  And they spoke behind Moshe’s back saying – who is this woman-born who has ascended to the heights?

This midrash may have more in common with the teaching about the gates of wisdom than just the shared citation from Psalms 8. Rav and Shemuel speak of gates of understanding that are “in the world”, which may imply a wisdom embodied in all of creation.  However, both the phrase used in their teaching - “given to Moshe”, and the verse cited from Psalms 8, are associated with the receiving of Torah at Sinai. This allows us to understand that Moshe receives these gates of understanding as Torah at Sinai . 

But whether these gates are revealed in Torah or in the world, the origin of the number fifty in Rav and Shemuel’s teaching remains unexplained. The editor of Bavli Rosh HaShanah associates Rav and Shemuel’s teaching with another verse from Psalms: “The words of the Lord are pure words, silver purged in an earthen crucible, refined sevenfold” (12:7, JPS translation). The Hebrew word for sevenfold “shiv’atayim” is midrashically read as seven times seven thus leading to the conclusion that God’s word goes through forty-nine refinements, presumably equivalent to the gates of understanding that were given to Moshe.

The same verse is used to evoke the number forty-nine in a different context in the Yerushalmi:

R Yannai taught: Had Torah been given clear cut there would have been [for us] no place to stand. What then is the meaning of “God spoke to Moshe” ?
He (Moshe) said: Master of the universe, make known to me the path (halacha) to follow. God answered: “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2) – If the majority rules innocent – acquit, and if the majority rules guilty – condemn. [I am not giving you a clear cut answer] so that you will discover in Torah (torah nidreshet) forty-nine aspects [leading to the conclusion] pure, and forty-nine aspects [leading to the conclusion] impure. Forty-nine is the numerical value of the word vediglo. […and his banner (vediglo) of love is over me. Songs, 2:2] Thus also scripture says - “The words of the Lord are pure words, silver purged in an earthen crucible, refined sevenfold” (Psalms, 12:7). And also – “they loved you sincerely”  (Songs, 1:4).

The Yerushalmi, like the Bavli is focused on the limits of Moshe’s knowledge even as he receives Torah directly from God. There are however some significant differences between the two teachings. The verse both teachings have in common (at least according to Bavli Rosh Hashanah) is understood as leading to the number forty-nine. However, the number forty-nine is never actually mentioned in the Bavli. It is identified only as one less than fifty. This strange identification of the number makes some sense if we understand that the Bavli’s teaching focuses on the gap between God and humanity. God knows or inhabits the fifty gates of understanding, but even the most perfect human can acquire only forty-nine. To enter the fiftieth gate would be to acquire divine understanding, but the point of this teaching, summarized by quoting Psalms 8:6, is that humans are always “slightly less than God.”

In the Yerushalmi on the other hand the number fifty is never mentioned. Rather than being an expression of the difference between humans and God, the number forty-nine is an expression (“banner”) of God’s love. The number forty-nine embodies the multiple options of human readings accompanied by human insecurity, error and innovation. Beyond that lays the absolute authority of God who with divine certainty can tell us what path to follow. The request that the Midrash attributes to Moshe assumes that God will take that role, but God is not interested in having that kind of relationship with Israel. God wants a love relationship with Israel and understands that this requires the human partner have “a place to stand” as well. The Torah of the covenant is not authored by only one side of the relationship. God has offered us an unfinished text that has rich possibilities (forty-nine) of completion in any direction we humans might take it. Our relationship with God can truly be a love relationship only because we stand as autonomous partners in it and contribute our side to creating its text. The Yerushalmi does not have a mysterious fiftieth gate. It has forty-nine pathways of human creativity and innovation spreading out in any direction we look.

The verse from Psalms 12 makes sense in the Yerushalmi precisely because it is associated with the number forty-nine and not with the number fifty. Its connection to the teaching of Rav and Shemuel is more tenuous. In connecting the verse to their teaching the editor of Bavli Rosh Hashanah merges their teaching to that of the Yerushalmi, diffusing much of the Yerushalmi’s power. In creating this merger the editor leaves us with the impression that the endless possibilities of interpretation in Torah are a human shortcoming, the result of not having divine knowledge. Presumably, God who inhabits the fiftieth gate knows the correct interpretation.

While this conclusion may actually reflect the teaching of Rav and Shemuel it does not represent the Yerushalmi which celebrates the variety of human understandings as an expression of God’s love.

The difference between these two teachings might also be expressed in the way we celebrate Shavo’ut. Seen through the lens of the Bavli’s teaching Shavu’ot is a holiday of Yir’ah (fear/awe). Even if we stand at the peak of human achievement, having worked our way through all forty-nine gates of understanding, the revelation of Shavu’ot is beyond us. The Torah of Shavu’ot is the exposure to the Divine, to the fiftieth gate that we recognize will never be ours. Experiencing the awesome greatness of God we humbly accept to follow and work on Torah within our own human limitations.

On the other hand the Yerushalmi’s teaching is much more in line with the traditions that celebrate Shavu’ot as a wedding, focusing on the experience of Divine love –Ahavah. For forty-nine days we have affirmed the freedom we claimed on Pesah, delving into the entire realm of human possibility. It is this richness, our journeys, our mistakes, our autonomous being that allows us to be partners in love with the Holy blessed One and celebrate not only the receiving, but the co-creation of Torah.

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Sefirot HaOmer
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Faculty, Rabbinical School

Over the past few years, the somewhat esoteric practice of connecting the counting of the Omer to the seven lower sefirot has been gaining popularity in liberal Jewish circles. The usual structure for this practice is to devote each of the seven weeks to one sefirah and within each week to devote one day to each sefirah. Every day is thus dedicated to a primary (of the week) and secondary (of the day) sefirah. These sefirot then serve as the focal point of that day’s spiritual work. In the following pages, I will present some of the sources for this practice, and an understanding of the way sefirot can function as foci of practice. 

This practice is based on a particular understanding of the holidays of Pesah and Shavu’ot and the time between them. In some of the classic rabbinic midrashim and in the later mystical tradition, the redemption of Pesah is neither deserved nor were we prepared for it (see for example Shir HaShirim Rabbah on verses 2:2 and 2:8). This idea is already expressed to some extent in the biblical narrative itself. Wandering through the desert the people still preserve their slave mentality, and repeatedly express the desire to return to Egypt. God and Moshe can take the people out of Egypt in one night, but it is clear that even to the end of the Torah they have not succeeded in taking Egypt out of the people.

Pesah thus represents a moment of redemption, which then needs to be reclaimed through hard work and an often painful process. This dynamic is preserved in the mystical tradition as the orientation of the spiritual practice of Pesah and the counting of the Omer. On Pesah, we “skip” (pasah) all the necessary preliminaries and break out of bondage into freedom. But then, the next day when we come down from the “high,” we begin doing the work we had skipped of truly establishing freedom in our souls. Only as people who own their freedom and independence can we be God’s partner to the covenant of Torah entered mutually on Shavu’ot. We engage in this work of preparation during the period of counting the Omer.

The Zohar describes this as an ongoing process of redemption:

When the Israelites were in Egypt they defiled themselves with all kinds of impurity, so much that they were subservient to forty nine forces of impurity. The blessed Holy One delivered them from the service of all other powers, and brought them into forty nine gates of knowledge that parallel them [the forty nine forces of impurity]...This is why we count them [the forty nine days of the Omer], beginning from the holiday of Pesah…Each day we are delivered from one force of impurity and brought into one force of purity. (Zohar Hadash, Yitro, 39a) 

Besides being the number of days leading up to Shavu’ot, forty nine is also the number of years leading up to Yovel when we “proclaim freedom throughout the land”(Vayikra 25:10). The number fifty and the notion of freedom are connected in the mystical tradition to the sefirah Binah which includes “fifty gates of understanding.” Binah is part of a “symbol cluster” which also includes “the Great Mother” and the womb from which all being comes forth. The freedom of Binah thus means rebirth, which is the capacity to live in a way not determined by the past.

It is only in later traditions that other sefirot are involved in this practice. The notion that the seven weeks leading up to the fiftieth day are devoted to the seven sefirot leading up to Binah is developed in the writings of the disciples of the Ari. While they call for a restoration of forty nine aspects of God during these days, the work of that restoration is done in the human soul.

During these forty nine days it is also good that you have the intention to rectify all that you have wronged in relation to the seven sefirot. For example, during the first week your intention should be towards restoring whatever you have wronged and the harm you have caused in relation to the sefirah of Hesed. In the second week your intention should be to restore the harm you have caused in relation to the sefirah of Gevurah and so on through the seven weeks. (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Pesah, 11)

Understand the implications of this paragraph requires understanding one of the most significant elements of Kabbalah and Hassidut as a spiritual practice. While the work you need to do relates to your personal life including both internal and external interactions, the frame of reference for that work is the greatest possible – the life of God. The language of sefirot functions this way as well. It describes processes and experiences of the life of the practitioner and simultaneously the inner dynamics of God. When you work on change in yourself, you are changing the life of the cosmos; and when you devote yourself to changing the world, you are also working on yourself.
Sefirot are thus general categories but at the same time they are also intensely personal. As I attempt to explain something about the sefirot in the following paragraphs I will not offer a general introduction to their language and concepts. Our teacher Art Green has done this in many contexts in scholarly and accessible ways. See particularly in his book “Ehyeh” pages 39-60 and also in “A Guide to the Zohar” pages 28-59, particularly the notion of sefirot as “symbol clusters” beginning on page 55.
What I will present is the way I have come to understand those teachings through my practice. It is thus a somewhat idiosyncratic presentation of the sefirot, a mixture of what I have heard and read with what I have experienced. I do not think I have discovered any great truth previously unknown, or that I am expressing these ideas any better than those who preceded me.  I am sharing this as an example of the process of personalization that happens when ideas are taken into practice. My hope is that this example will encourage others interested in investing in this practice to open to the growth and development that happen when your learning meets your practice.
I have been a student of Art Green since 1999. Certainly on this topic the meaningful elements I have understood and can articulate come from him. I claim as my own the misunderstandings, and the places I have managed to obscure his clear presentations.


Binah   Hochmah
Gevurah   Hesed
Hod   Netsah


Malchut is what is. Calling “what is” (“Mah” in the Zohar) a sefirah is a way of recognizing that everything that exists and that happens, just as it exists and happens, is a manifestation of Divinity. This includes both good and evil, spirit and matter, and all forms of physical, spiritual and psychological occurrences. There is nothing but God (ein od milevado, Devarim 4:35) and that recognition is what is being referred to by the sefirah of Malchut. Most “awareness practices” (Sit. Breathe. Notice your physical sensations. Notice the thoughts arising in your mind, etc.) to the extent that they relate to God or are used in a relationship with God relate to this aspect of God. Anyone who has engaged in such practices can easily understand why Malchut is most often characterized as a receptive sefirah. “Malchut awareness” requires the practitioner to attempt not to change, not to judge, not to respond but rather just to be in the receptive mode of observation, or even just “to be.” Since everything is a manifestation of God, ignoring or denying any aspect of existence or your experience of existence is a denial of God. There is no path to God outside of honest recognition of reality, or in the words of the Zohar – “open to me the gates of Tsedek/Malchut” (Psalms 118:19); if you do not enter through this gate, you will never enter “(1:7b). “This is the first opening through which to enter and in this opening all other supernal openings are seen. If you merit this one you will have knowledge of it and of all other openings as they all dwell within it.” (1:103b)

Malchut should always be in relation to Tifferet. Tifferet is the glorious vision of the world as it could be rather than as it is. Tifferet is a vision wherein all forces harmonize rather than clash in conflict and all is revealed as being in service of love, compassion and truth. As mentioned in the previous paragraph we have no direct access to Tifferet or any other sefirah except for Malchut. It is only through our observation of Malchut that we develop a vision of Tifferet. The closer we get to an all-encompassing awareness of reality and the more inclusive our observation of the world is, the closer we can get to a true vision of Tifferet. To the extent that we are limited by our personal perspective, our vision of what could be is only a reflection of ourselves and our limitations. Thus Hazal teach that all the prophets looked through a reflecting lens but Moshe looked through a transparent lens (Bavli, Yevamot 49b). Following this, Moshe is known in the Zohar as the one who has mastered Malchut (Zohar 1:236b).

The challenge of life is that Malchut is not united with Tifferet or in other words that the world as it is, is not identical to the world as it could be (acknowledging the difficulty of achieving a non-biased vision of the world as it could be. On this see the comment on Emunah at the end). Violent clashes take the place of harmony, falsehood replaces honesty and alienation replaces love. In the language of Kabbalah this is “the exile (galut) of the Shechinah/Malchut.” We humans are called upon to use our lives to help bridge this gap, to help bring Malchut and Tifferet together, to help bring the world as it is one step closer to the world as it could be.

The core meaning shared by all symbols related to the sefirah Yesod is that of a connecting channel. Yesod is the step that follows Malchut. It is the divinity manifest in our ability and choice to step beyond observation and turn our lives into a channel through which Malchut can draw closer to Tifferet. Central to Yesod is the symbol of Tzaddik – the righteous person whose life is a channel through which the world as it is comes closer to what it could be. Every person just by virtue of being is an aspect of Malchut. It is however the choices we make in life that determine if we are also part of Tzaddik, the channel that brings Tifferet and Malchut together, or if heaven forbid, we further enhance the gap between what is and what could be. Raising this awareness was the intention of the 17th century kabbalists who prefaced every ritual act with a dedication to “the unification of the blessed Holy One and his Shechinah.”

Netsah and Hod are expressions of God as manifest in our most basic choices. Depending on the situation, we can bring Malchut and Tifferet closer together either by changing our current reality (lenatse’ah – to overcome – Netsah) or by accepting the situation as it is (lehodot – to acknowledge/admit/accept – Hod). God is manifest, as Netsah, in our ability and choice to change the situation we observe, to overcome limitations, to break down boundaries and by doing so bring the world closer to what it could be. But God is also manifest, as Hod, in our ability and choice to accept what is, and through the quiet of acceptance rather than the loud sounds of fighting, bring the world closer to what it could be.

The medical choices we often have to make when facing a severe illness easily demonstrate this tension. Under certain circumstances, the best response to illness is to fight it with every tool modern medicine has put in our hands and not give up even when faced with overwhelming odds. When we act this way, we are living in the flow of Netsah. But there are times when that fight is the wrong choice, when it only creates suffering and alienation for the people involved and the world in general. Under those conditions, we are called to live in the flow of Hod and by cultivating honest acceptance increase peace and love in the world. 

But this is not only a choice of dramatic life and death moments. It is a choice that has to be made every moment and the life of Tsaddik is forever in the balance between Netsah and Hod.

Hesed and Gevurah are not formed by our lives in the same way the Sefirot from Malchut to Tifferet are. I have come to understand birth and death as the core representations of Hesed and Gevurah respectively. Birth is a gift of opportunity given to us for no merit of our own as we did not exist prior to the gift. Death is a limit and boundary set to every person, which like birth is set regardless of our actions and choices. Hesed is thus akin to the concept of Grace as understood by our Catholic brethren – an undeserved gift of opportunity coming from love. Existence itself is an act of Hesed – “Olam hesed Yibaneh”(Psalms, 89:3) - the world is established on Hesed. But there are many smaller manifestations of God as Hesed in daily life. The opening, the opportunity that does not result from your own actions, the moment that allows you to be more and greater than the sum of your life and choices are all God manifest as Hesed. 

Gevurah similarly appears in daily life beyond its manifestation as the ultimate boundary – death. The fact that there are consequences to every deed is the flow of Gevurah known as Din – judgment (or the principle of Karma in the Hindu tradition). But limitations that are not the result of choices we have made (like death or other such occurrences that we do not cause and cannot truly avoid) are also an expression of Gevurah.

Although Hesed and Gevurah are not determined by the choices we make, the awareness of their presence is very important to our lives. The flow of Hesed encourages the choice of Netsah, which is to say the gift of opportunity makes change and transformation easier. Similarly, the flow of Gevurah can encourage the choice of Hod, so that while we cannot form Hesed and Gevurah, we can respond to their presence in our lives through the choices we make at the level of Netsah and Hod.

Comment on the role of Emunah – trust

As I noted above, one of the challenges of stepping into the flow of Tzaddik is the fact that we (with the exception of Moshe) have no unmediated access to Tifferet, and our vision of Tifferet changes as our observation of Malchut grows more inclusive. How can we aspire to connect Tifferet and Malchut if we never really know what Tifferet is? 

It is here that Emunah (commonly translated as belief, but more practically translated as) – trust, plays a significant role in our spiritual life. You may trust your own insights, your teachers, a written Torah, the teaching of your mother; but whatever it is, in order to function in a productive way you need to be able to act from trust without full knowledge or control of what you are doing. R Zalman Shechter Shalomi from whom I have been privileged to learn offered the following image for Emunah. It is like a person who throws a hook attached to a long rope over a wall in order to scale the wall. When the person feels that the hook has been caught on something and is stable, she begins to scale the wall. She does not know what the hook is attached to and if whatever the hook is attached to is stable or might suddenly move. All she knows is that for the time being it is stable enough to allow her to take steps up the wall. That, R Zalman explains, is the spiritual posture of Emunah. All we know is that for the time being the premises we are working with are enough to help us take some steps forward on what we understand to be our journey.

A 21st Century Hassidic Teaching on Shabbat Zachor
By Rabbi Ebn Leader
Faculty, Rabbinical School 

Remember what Amalek did to you as you were leaving Egypt…and when YHVH your God brings you to a place of rest from your surrounding enemies in the land YHVH your God is giving you as your portion, blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens — do not forget. (Devarim 25:17-19)

To understand why, the paragraph begins by telling us to remember what Amalek has done but then commands us to blot out the memory of Amalek. We further have to understand how the reading of Parashat Zachor prepares us for Purim and in this context also to struggle with our practice of celebrating on Purim a story that ends with thousands of people being killed.

The key symbol of our cycle of spring holidays is freedom. In nature, this is reflected in the image of rivers breaking out of the ice, buds bursting forth from cold branches and earth, people stepping out of homes and wrappings and new life entering the world. Pesah is at the heart of this cycle. On Pesah, we celebrate the Exodus. We tell the story of an enslaved people who were able to leave the land of their oppression and cross the Reed Sea into freedom. But the holiday cycle also teaches that this freedom is not an end to itself. As soon as the first day of Passover ends, we begin a countdown of 49 days leading to the celebration of Shavout, the celebration of receiving Torah at Mount Sinai and the acceptance of a commitment to the covenantal relationship with God. Slaves cannot take on the responsibilities of a covenant. The freedom gained on Pesah is meaningful only because it enables us to take on the committed relationship with God.

If Pesach is a necessary preparation for Shavuot, how does Purim prepare us for Pesah?

Our masters have taught that within the boundaries of this world chaos (tohu) always precedes a new creation. The seed in the ground falls apart so that a new plant can grow; death creates a path for new life. For those invested in the old order, this process can be terrifying. “The weak souls of the established world, the masters of measure and norm, are afraid of this fire. How can we live with this devouring fire, they ask, with this world-consuming blaze? In truth, there is nothing to fear. It is only the weak-spirited sinners and hypocrites who fear and tremble. Strong souls recognize this display of power as part of the world’s evolution, a necessary element in developing the strength of nation, humanity and of the whole universe.” (R AYH Kook, Orot, Zer’onim)

How much more is this the case when breaking out of oppression, and particularly violent oppression. Doing this calls for the power to overcome (lenatse’ah - Netsah) existing “realities,” a power which often carries within itself residue (reshimo) of the power of oppression itself. R Kook (in the teaching quoted) speaks of a secular movement that with anger and hate rejected Jewish religion as a necessary step in the rebirth of Judaism as a path of serving God (though the Zionists he was speaking of did not understand their endeavor in those terms…). Similarly, after the holocaust, it is not surprising that Jews were affirmed by the power of weapons over and against any non-Jewish people who were perceived as a threat. Can we follow R Kook and see this as a blessing, a necessary stage on our road to becoming a kingdom of Aharonite priests, lovers and pursuers of peace and wholeness?

Many of us go through a gentler version of this process in our own development. The harshness of adolescent rebellion is a necessary stage leading towards the creation of a whole and independent identity; and as some developmental psychologists teach us, it is only this independent identity that is able to succeed at committed relationships with other mature adults.

This is how the Holy Ari explains the Spring-rebirth cycle of holidays (Pri Etz Hayyim, Purim, Ch. 5). Purim is the lack of consciousness (dormita) within which the detaching happens. It is an upside-down time, a time when destructive tendencies are let out and celebrated. (Though the truth must be admitted, a large part of our ritual is about containing those tendencies. We allow them out in very specific time boundaries, in particular ritual settings; and we cover them with parody, jokes and alcohol. We make sure to simultaneously require practices of compassion and mutual responsibility. Perhaps this expresses an implicit prayer that the celebration of the parody lessens the need for the most extreme actualization.)

Without this process of rebellion and disconnecting, we could not stand as independent beings (benei-horin), free people, as we do on Pesah. The measure of our being truly independent and free on Pesah is that as opposed to Purim, on Pesah we do not hate the Egyptians. On the contrary, we fast for the loss of their first-born. We remind ourselves at the seder that the blood that was shed during the 10 plagues was the same as that which drips from our own bodies. It is only as independent beings, complete unto ourselves, that we can enter a covenant of love and commitment with God. Thus Purim leads to Pesah, which leads to the acceptance of Torah on Shavu’ot.

Purim is certainly one of the more dangerous stages of this process. It is very easy to get stuck in the rebellion mode, to be sucked into a vortex of violence, anger and retribution. This is why before we enter Purim, we read Parashat Zachor. Indeed, Purim is so dangerous that, according to some Rishonim, Parashat Zachor is the only Torah reading that every individual is required to hear. Parashat Zachor reminds us: “Remember what Amalek did to you,” because that memory is the source of the power to break existing bonds and create new realities. Do not forget the suffering inflicted upon you even though that memory leads to anger and chaos. But “when YHVH your God brings you to a place of rest from your surrounding enemies" when you have asserted your own identity as free and independent — “blot out the memory of Amalek” — then it is time to forget and let go because the anger is only an obstacle at that point. It is an old fear and anger that stands between you and being your full self.

And the Torah reminds us one last time — “do not forget” to let go at that point, because if you do not reach the fullness of Pesah, freedom that allows compassion even for those who hurt you, you will never be able to stand at Sinai in loving covenant with God.

Doing More Than We Think We Can
Dvar Hanuhkah 5773
By Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg
Assistant Professor of Rabbinics 

There is a somewhat obscure debate regarding the lighting of Hanukkah candles that actually gets across a striking message about Hanukkah and the performance of religious acts in general. But in order to understand that dispute, we first have to review the original source for our practice of candle lighting.

In "Massekhet Shabbat" 21b, we are told that the actual mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light one candle per household each night of the holiday. Those who are seeking to fulfill this mitzvah in a more beautiful way (the “mehadrin” in the Hebrew), however, light one candle for each person in the house each night. Finally, those who want to perform the mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible (Hebrew: the “mehadrin min hamehadrin”) add one candle each night, i.e., the practice that we are familiar with nowadays. (There’s actually a slight variation in this between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews, with the former lighting a "hanukkiyah" for each person in the household, while the latter light only one hanukkiyah per home, but in both cases, we move from one candle on the first night to eight on the last). Of course, the practice that I assume we are all familiar with is the one described here as being far more stringent — and beautiful — than what is actually required, i.e., the lighting of an increasing number of candles on each night of the holiday.

Based on this history, a number of early modern authorities debate a very specific question: What happens if I begin lighting the Hanukkah candles on, for example, the fourth night of Hanukkah, and after lighting, say, two of them, I remember that I forgot to recite the blessings? Normally, I may recite a blessing over a mitzvah only prior to — or, if I forgot, while still in the act of — performing a mitzvah, but once I’ve completed the mitzvah, I may no longer say the blessing.

If I go out to the sukkah on Tuesday of Sukkot, eat lunch, recite grace after meals and leave to go somewhere, I can’t then recite the blessing for sitting in the sukkah! If we remember that the “actual” mitzvah of Hanukkah is to light one candle each night, and everything else is “extra credit,” as it were, then a reasonable conclusion would be that since I’ve already lit at least one candle, I may no longer recite the blessing for lighting candles.

The third and fourth candles that I still have to light, in the scenario I described above, are not really a mitzvah, they’re just decoration. But Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Central Europe, 1761-1837) in fact rules that one should recite the blessing “lehadlik neir shel Hanukkah” if you remember while you still have some candles left to light.

It turns out that there is actually a debate in general about whether beautifying commandments — whether going beyond what is merely “required” of me — is itself an act of religious commitment that merits a blessing. And in this debate — at least as it plays out regarding Hanukkah candles — Rabbi Akiva Eiger sides with the view permitting (and therefore requiring) a blessing over the beautifying.

In some sense, the view espoused by Rabbi Akiva Eiger actually makes a great deal of sense. It may be true in a technical sense that the mitzvah of Hanukkah lighting is simply to light one candle; but nowadays, anyone who knows about the ritual of Hanukkah candles knows about it in its most “pious” sense, i.e., of lighting a menorah with multiple candles, one for each night.

Who among us would feel as if we’ve in fact observed Hanukkah if we lit only one candle on the eighth night? Thus, experientially (even if not textually), the commandment has indeed become to light an increasing number of candles each night.

Understood this way, Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s ruling simply reflects an awareness that, no matter what the books say, if the Jewish people understand a religious obligation in a particular way, that becomes the mitzvah. The Talmud may say that one candle is enough, but try telling that to my mother (or, I suspect, to Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s mother). This, then, is a claim about performance of religious obligations in general; even if I have technically fulfilled some claim, if I feel like I’ve evaded my full obligations, then I still have work left to do.

But there’s another way in which this ruling reflects something not about mitzvah-performance in general, but about Hanukkah specifically. Why is it that, of all the mitzvot discussed in the Talmud, the one that is not only performed by a huge swath of modern-day Jewry, but performed specifically in a mehadrin min hamehadrin way, is the lighting of the Hanukkah candles?

In response to this question, my teacher Rav Yehudah Gilad of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa suggested that this phenomenon is a reflection of the particular message of Hanukkah: the importance of going beyond what is merely required or expected of you. After all, the core miracle of Hanukkah is of oil lasting longer than it was “supposed” to last. And as has been pointed out by several commentators, in the song "Ma’oz Tzur", we sing that Hanukkah is “yemei shemonah,” a literary way of saying “eight days long,” but which literally means “days of eight," i.e., days that reflect going beyond the seven days of natural/normal creation.

These days of Hanukkah that are coming upon us are all about going beyond the normal, beyond the required. Thus, on this holiday, the extra piety of mehadrin min hamehadrin becomes a part of the mitzvah, a part of the requirement, as it were — so much so that you’re not really done lighting candles until you’ve lit all eight.

Lighting our hanukkiyot is supposed to remind us that the Torah demands that we do more than we think we can, more than we have been told we must, more than the waning daylight hours seem to allow for. We should all be blessed to experience — and be inspired to take with us into the rest of the year — this spirit of “yemei shemonah.”

Hag Hanukkah Sameah!

How Isaac Lost His Ḥet
Parashat Toldot 
By Harvey Bock
Hebrew Language Coordinator, Rabbinical School 

The name יִצְחַק is rendered in English as “Isaac,” with no consonant corresponding to the ḥet (ח) in the Hebrew. By contrast, the renditions of other Hebrew names containing a ḥet do include a reflection of this letter — for example, Rachel, from רַחֵל.

The explanation appears to relate to the fact that the Hebrew letter ḥet corresponds to two different consonants in “Proto-Semitic,” the hypothetical, reconstructed ancestor of the Semitic languages. One was apparently pronounced as the letter ḥet is traditionally pronounced by Jews from Arabic-speaking countries — smoothly and softly, like the letter heh (ה), but with a constriction of the lower part of the throat; the other was pronounced as Ashkenazi Jews pronounce ḥet today — that is, the same as the letter kaph (כ) is pronounced when it has no dagesh.Arabic, by contrast, preserves them as separate letters in its alphabet.

Although a single letter, ḥet, appears in Hebrew regardless of which of these two Proto-Semitic consonants underlies it, it may well be that the two continued to be distinguished in pronunciation as least as late as the third–second centuries B.C.E., when the Septuagint translation of the Tanakh into Greek was created. This can be seen from the fact that the Septuagint's transliterations of Hebrew names treat the two ḥets differently. When a ḥet is one that was originally of the first type (as determined by a comparison with cognate words in a language that maintained the distinction between the two types), it is not reflected by a Greek consonant; thus, יִצְחַק is transliterated as “Isaak.” On the other hand, when the ḥet is one that was originally of the second type, it is represented by the Greek letter chi. It is likely that the translators of the Septuagint were distinguishing, as best they could — given the letters available to them in the Greek alphabet — the two different pronunciations they heard of the letter ḥet.

A similar explanation accounts for the fact that the ‘ayin in the place names עַזָּה and עֲמֹרָה is reflected by a “g” in their English versions, Gaza and Gomorrah, while the ayin (ע) in יַעֲקֹב is not reflected in its English version, Jacob. In this case, too, there were two different Proto-Semitic consonants that merged in Hebrew into the letter ayin: one was pronounced something like the letter in French, the other like the letter aleph (א), but with a constriction of the lower part of the throat. In transliterated names, the authors of the Septuagint often transliterated the first with the Greek letter gamma and did not reflect the second as a consonant in their transliteration.

This is just one of several ways that ancient translations of the Tanakh shed light on features of older Hebrew.

A prominent semiticist, John Huehnergard, has recently proposed that there was yet a third Proto-Semitic consonant that merged, in Hebrew, into the letter ḥet.

This caused no confusion, as the Proto-Semitic consonant represented in Hebrew by the letter kaph was long pronounced only “hard,” like the English letter k; its alternative pronunciation (which we now associate with the absence of a dagesh is a relatively late development in Hebrew.

There are those who question the significance of the transliteration because, in a small number of cases, the transliteration variations do not correspond to etymological differences; an alternative explanation for the transliteration variations may lie in shifting transliteration conventions over time.)

A Centenarian New Father?! Hah!
By Harvey Bock
Hebrew Language Coordinator, Rabbinical School

In Gen. 17:16, which is in this week’s parashah, לֵךְ־לְךָ, God announces to Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son. This pronouncement strains the credulity of even such a paragon of faith as Abraham. In response, Abram falls on his face and with a laugh says to himself, “Does a 100-year-old father a son? And as for Sarah, does a 90-year-old give birth?”

There is a grammatical oddity in Abraham’s question. The common device for introducing a yes-or-no question in Biblical Hebrew is the particle הֲ־, “the interrogativeheh” (written הַ־ in some circumstances, including when the first letter that follows is pointed with a sheva). (In later Hebrew it appears mostly in combination with the word אִם, in the form of the semantically equivalent interrogative, הַאִם.)

So we might have expected the first part of Abraham’s question to read, הַלְבֶן מֵאָה־שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד. But what he asks is actually written in a slightly different way. The first word of his question is not הַלְבֶן, but הַלְּבֶן — which, you will notice, differs subtly but significantly, because there is a dot (in Hebrew, a dagesh) in the letter lamed. Now, words with a prefixed heh, pointed as it is in הַלְּבֶן is, are extremely common in Hebrew; this heh prefix is, of course, Hebrew’s definite article — the equivalent of adding the word “the” before a noun in English.

But in this verse we are clearly not dealing with a definite article before a noun, but rather with an indication that what follows is a question. So why this pointing?

In fact, this is one of several instances where a heh pointed like the definite article appears in the Tanakh where we would expect an interrogative heh. (Other examples are in Gen. 19:9, Lev. 10:19, and Deut. 20:19.) Some scholars (most recently, Jacob Milgrom in his commentary on Leviticus) have suggested that these cases all have one thing in common. They can be viewed as not genuine questions, in which the speaker is uncertain whether something is true or not; they are, rather rhetorical questions. Abraham knows perfectly well that 100-year-olds do not father children — that’s precisely why he laughs at God’s announcement. If the Tanakh used modern English punctuation, Abraham’s question would have ended with “?!”  Similarly, when Deut. 20:19 asks, “Are trees of the field men?” the answer is obvious; the question is rhetorical.

There is a wrinkle, however. In the second part of his question, regarding Sarah’s childbearing capacity — הֲבַת־תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד — Abraham reverts to the commonplace interrogative heh. Is his conviction in common knowledge weakening? Is his conviction in God’s capacity returning? Does he consider the possibility of Sarah’s bearing a child at her age less outlandish than his fathering one? Could it be that those who were responsible for pointing the text were uncomfortable substituting the definite article before a noun beginning with a letter bet, because its pronunciation would thereby be significantly changed? Did a scribe at some point (perhaps for the same reason) replace the unconventional pointing of הַבַּת with the common pointing of the interrogative heh? Or was someone just inconsistent in pointing this verse?

Good questions — and not just rhetorical ones!

Noah and the Wampanoags
By Harvey Bock
Hebrew Language Coordinator, Rabbinical School

If you were paying close attention to the seemingly endless genealogy lists in last week's parashah, נֹחַ, you may have noticed that among Noah's descendants was a grandson named תִּירָס (Gen. 10:2). תִּירָס is also the Modern Hebrew word for the grain that Americans call “corn.” Surprisingly, the biblical figure and the word for “corn” are in fact connected. (The information that follows was gathered by Gad B. Sarfatti, an Israeli linguist.)

In one of the Aramaic translations of the Torah, תִּירָס is translated as תְּרָקִי. Though various theories have been offered as to what ethnic groups תִּירָס and תְּרָקִי refer to (e.g., the Thracians or the Etruscans), in Hebrew Enlightenment-era literature, תִּירָס/תְּרָקִי was understood to refer to Turkey.

The grain that we call “corn” was first called “Turkish wheat” in a number of European languages, including German, French, Italian and Yiddish (in which it was called טערקישע ווייץ). Turkey evidently represented, generically, a distant and exotic place of origin. Accordingly, in Hebrew corn was given the name חִטֵּי תִּירָס — which was later shortened to תִּירָס.

Sarfatti summarizes: “Corn is called תִּירָס in Hebrew based on the assumptions that it comes from Turkey and that in the Bible, Turkey was called תִּירָס. Both assumptions are almost certainly incorrect. But the name of the plant endures.”

MarCheshvan or Cheshvan?
By Harvey Bock
Hebrew Language Coordinator, Rabbinical School

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, we marked the arrival of the month that is usually referred to as either חֶשְׁוָן or מַרְחֶשְׁוָן. It is common knowledge that the second name developed from the first: the word מַר, which means “bitter,” was added to חֶשְׁוָן because it is the only month in the Jewish calendar with absolutely no holidays or other out-of-the-ordinary days — not even a fast day.

But sometimes common knowledge is wrong.

When the linguistic facts are examined, the popular explanation of the name מַרְחֶשְׁוָן turns out to be nothing but a charming folk etymology. But the true origin of the name is at least as interesting. The following is a translated paraphrase of a discussion of מַרְחֶשְׁוָן by N. H. Tur-Sinai, a major Israeli scholar of Hebrew and the Bible (1886–1973):

It is a well-known fact, mentioned even in the Talmud, that the names of the months that we use today in Jewish life came from Babylon with the returning exiles in the days of Ezra. We can see from the Bible that different names were used before that. Akkadian texts confirm the provenance of the current names, as these names were in use in Assyria and Babylon during the Judean exile; and from Akkadian we can establish the original meaning of those names. For example, the name of the month תִּשְׁרֵי is tašritu in Akkadian, which means “beginning.” (The same word is found in the Aramaic piyyutAqdamut, which is read on Shavuot: The first line, אַקְדָּמוּת מִלִּין וְשַׁרְיוּת שׁוּתָא, means “an introduction of words and a beginning [שַׁרְיוּת] of conversation.”) תִּשְׁרֵי was so named because it was viewed at the time as the beginning of the year, even though an alternate Israelite calendric system treated Nisan as the first month of the year.

It is this alternative system that accounts for the name מַרְחֶשְׁוָן. First, a pronunciation issue: In Babylon the pronunciation of the letter memand vav (which was at the time still pronounced like the English letter “w”) was reversed; both letters are pronounced with the two lips, and this evidently accounts for their reversal in Babylon. The name that gave rise, through this pronunciation, to מַרְחֶשְׁוָן, was originally waru šamanu — i.e., in Hebrew, יֶרַח שְׁמִינִי, “eight month.” מַרְחֶשְׁוָן thus means the eighth month (counting from Nisan).

So in fact, it is מַרְחֶשְׁוָן that is the month’s original name, and חֶשְׁוָן is just a shortened version.

May your חֶשְׁוָן be a sweet one!

Praying for Rain
Sukkot Devar Torah 5773
By Rabbi Daniel Berman
Adjunct Instructor

I like rainy days. Rain settles my mind. It’s great for the small patch of grass behind our house and the tomato plants on the porch. And I like the air and the mist that hovers over the ground after the rain has stopped.

But rain is not always so timely.

For example: when you spend two days building a sukkah, going back and forth to the hardware store to replace rotted-out metal braces and 2-by-4s that warped during the winter and when you didn’t think to place your children’s timeless sukkah decorations into plastic sleeves and when you have set out a new tablecloth and spent hours cleaning the metal chairs that rusted…well, the hope is that, on that first morning of Sukkot, the sun will rise, you will say the blessing, shake the lulav, scratch off the scent of the etrog, look up at the sky through the tiny holes in the schach and be warmed by the glorious sun. It’s not a day for the earth under the sukkah to turn to mud or the wood to begin to warp again or the meal to be moved inside.

But when it rains, it rains, and when there’s sun, there’s sun, and, for the most part, there’s not a thing in the world we can do to change that.

In the agrarian society in which our ancient tradition emerged, religious ritual was deeply connected to the cycles of the bounty of the earth. During this time of year, particularly for those finishing their summer harvest, trimming perennial plants and waiting for the rain to moisten the soil and strengthen the roots in their fields, rain is at the center of Jewish thought and prayer.

At the end of Sukkot, during Shemini Atzeret, we add a verse to the second blessing of the Amidah called "gevurot geshamim," meaning the power of rain. The verse — "mashiv ha’ruach u’morid hagashem" — offers praise to God for the blessing of rain.

In mishna Taanit, our ancient rabbis debated the timing of adding this verse to the Amidah. Rabbi Eliezar taught that we should add these words from the first day of Yom Tov Sukkot.

Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed: no, we should begin to praise God for rain on the last day of Sukkot, as rain during Sukkot would be a "siman k’lalah" — a curse on the festival; it would prevent us from dwelling in our sukkot. (A parallel teaching in mishna Sukkah adds a funny but unnerving image: rain during Sukkot is like a servant who comes to fill a cup for his master and the master pours the ladle in his face).

When Rabbi Eliezar clarified that he was not referring to prayer requesting rain, but rather praising God’s power to bring rain, Rabbi Yehoshua was ready with a response: if so, we should say this prayer all year long! No, gevurot geshamim should only be said when rain is actually a blessing.

I tend to agree, particularly during Sukkot. Rain during Sukkot is not good.

But our mishna goes on to present a more serious problem than rain falling during Sukkot: what happens if the rainy season commences and the rains never come? What then?

To begin, particular individuals take on three fasts. If the next month (Rosh Hodesh Kislev) arrives and there’s still no rain, the Court decrees three fasts for the whole community. If these fasts pass “and were not answered,” the Court decrees three more fasts, then another three, then an additional seven — now 13 fasts for the community.

I have to admit, when I first learned these mishnayot, I went to a bit of a skeptical place. How again will prayer and fasting call the rains down from the heaven?

I came back to the text.

There is a clear practical concern: fasting preserves the resources of the community. Mirroring the narrative of Joseph in Egypt, the community cuts back on its consumption of the resources it will need in case of sustained drought.

But there are spiritual insights as well. This is a time of year when we’re called to wrestle with the possibility that prayer has real and significant impact in the world. The biblical stories of Hannah and Jonah, two of our haftarot during the Yamim Noraim, reveal prayer to be transformational: after Hannah prays, she conceives, and after Jonah prays, he is re-birthed into the world from the belly of a fish. At the very least, their prayers enter both Hannah and Jonah into radically new spiritual realities.

And finally, it’s telling that the Court decreed full communal fasts. I imagine members of the community came together, sought solace in one another, shared experience, prayed, and relied on a collective strength. They were not just fasting to atone for wrongs so that the rains would magically come. It was not mere magic. Recall that the rabbis named their prayer gevurot geshamim: not just rain, but the Power of the Rains.

There is an implicit recognition, brought to life in the Gemara, that rain is an expression of God’s power — not theirs. Fasting was a response to precisely this recognition; a commitment to living their lives together with humility of their humanity.

Revealed Before the One
Devar Torah for Yom Kippur Neilah Service 5773
By Rabbi Arthur Green
Rector and Betty Irving Professor of Philosophy and Religion

One of the most powerful phrases in this day of overwhelmingly powerful liturgical expressions comes in the introduction to the על חטא, repeated throughout the day, but notably missing from נעילה:

אתה יודע רזי עולם ותעלומות סתרי כל חי
אתה חופש כל חדרי בטן ובוחן כליות ולב
אין דבר נעלם ממך ואין נסתר מנגד עיניך

You know the mysteries of the universe
As well as the hiddenmost secrets of each being that lives.
You seek out all our innermost chambers,
Testing our hearts and our innards.
Nothing is hidden from You;
No secret is kept from Your sight.

The theme is a repeated one in the Yom Kippur liturgy. God is described as:

צופה נסתרות, יודע מחשבות 
Knower of thoughts, Gazer into secrets.

הלא כל הנסתרות והנגלות אתה יודע
You indeed know all, both the hidden and the revealed.

That phrase is based on a verse we just read in Parashat Nitzsavim:

הנסתרות לה אלהינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם
Those things hidden are for Ha-Shem our God, 
but the revealed are for us and our descendants forever.

The נסתרות of that verse is taken by some commentators to refer to those transgressions of which even we ourselves are unaware. How can we repent of them? They are up to God; only God’s compassion and forgiveness can cleanse us of them. Just the נגלות, those things of which we are aware, can be the object of our own תשובה.

It strikes me that we have here one of many definitions of the indefinable reality we call God, the elusive אהיה אשר אהיה  that ever remains beyond our grasp. God is the One who knows all our secrets. To have faith in God is to admit, to accept, that my most intimate secrets do not belong to me alone, that there is a One that knows them all, accepting me and loving me as I most fully am, carrying all my secrets with me.

As I thought about this דרש over the course of the summer, two family stories occurred in the life of the Greens that I’d like to tell you about. Both have to do with secrets.

As you might guess, I am the “older relative” in most of my extended family who bears historic memory. When young people in one branch of cousinhood or another, all too infrequently, want to know some family story, they turn to me. This is true in my mother’s family and partially in one side of my father’s as well. But my father’s mother’s family has been a cipher to me. All contact with the Gersts, known in my childhood as dad’s Communist aunts and uncles in the Bronx, was cut off sharply about 45 years ago. The last time I remember seeing those folks was at a wedding in 1962, when they all stood together in the hallway during the huppah, because they would not walk into a religious ceremony. They were FRUM Communists.

But by the miracles on modern internet communication, someone was in touch with me in July asking: “Aren’t you a Gerst on one side of your family? There is a cousin who wants to be in touch with you.” Through her I made contact with my cousin Eleanor, daughter of my grandmother’s sister who was called "di roite Rifcheh," “Red Rifcheh,” referring both to her politics and the color of her hair. She was one of four siblings in the Bronx, all of them active party members. My grandmother in New Jersey, though not a Communist, shared their utter disdain for religion. They were children of Hasidim who had rebelled hard, already in the old country. Of course these people are all long gone.

“Did you know about the other sibling?” Eleanor asked me in the course of our conversation. I did not, and was utterly fascinated. “Yes, one brother named Haskel remained frum,” she said. “He was too religious to come to America. So he, his wife, and eight children all died in the Lodz ghetto.” This had never been mentioned in my childhood or on into my adult years — not by my grandmother, nor my father the historian, or anyone else. A big family secret. Why? Were they ashamed they hadn’t tried to get him out? Given the vast difference in worldview, did they just ignore him, saying “He made his choice…?” I don’t know, of course. Eleanor still has a postcard from him, sent from the Lodz ghetto, one of those written in German saying how wonderful everything was. Then silence. Silence on this side of the ocean as well.

This is not a unique story. It has made me wonder about all of our immigrant grandparents, even those who, like mine, came before the First World War. They all must have remembered people left behind. If not siblings then cousins, neighbors, schoolmates, first loves. Surely they must have thought about them as the news started coming out in the early forties. Did they talk about them? Did they share their fears and the horror of their nightmares? Or do all of our families bear within us what the prophet calls a משא דומה, a burden of silence? How heavily did that silence fall upon our parents’ generation, and maybe upon ours? Did the tremendous desire for successful Americanization and “making it” here come in part out of those secrets and that silence? What has been the cost, carried on through the generations, of bearing that burden?

אתה ודעי רזי עולםOnly God knows all our secrets. Even the secrets of atheists, of doubters, of those who cry out against God.

The other story is a somewhat lighter one. As many of you know, my wife Kathy published a memoir this year. After a lovely book event here at Hebrew College, we went on a “massive” publicity campaign. Its highlight was an interview in the Leavenworth, Kansas Times, the local paper of the town where Kathy grew up. Then we received about 10 book orders and emails, mostly from people who remembered Kathy from high school. Some still lived in Leavenworth; others had moved away but, unlike Kathy, still kept in touch with the hometown paper. One such note came from Harlingen, Texas. “I was so happy to hear about your book,” the person wrote. “You may not remember this, but when we were in junior high school, you asked me to accompany you to a dance. I first said yes, but then I changed my mind and backed out. My father told me, ‘Gentlemen don’t do that,’ and I’ve felt guilty about it ever since eighth grade. Now I finally have a chance to tell you my secret and apologize to you.” A week later we got a note from the president of the Harlingen synagogue, telling us that this non-Jewish gentleman had made a contribution in memory of Kathy’s father.

Don’t just laugh at this poor guy. Think of your own most embarrassing moment as an adolescent, the one you’ve never been able to tell anyone about. This too is one of 
תעלומות סתרי כל חי a secret also known to God.

Now those of you who know some of my theological writings, especially "Radical Judaism," might be a bit surprised by this language. Isn’t this, after all, a rather personified and indeed paternalistic view of God, one who looks down as though through a giant satellite camera, peering into all our secret places? Wouldn’t we at some point just prefer to be free of such a God, managing our secrets on our own, thank you? But you may also know that my key move, as a reader of Judaism in the mystical mode, is to insist that all vertical metaphors may also be read on an internal plane. Whenever we read about God “above,” learn to think of it as “within.” If God is said to dwell beyond the clouds, that means that universal consciousness resides deep within us, beyond the “clouds” of our ego needs and our clamor for individuality. Moses’ journey up Mount Sinai to find revelation is what I call “a vertical metaphor for an internal event.” The true journey is inward, not upward. Here too, it is Y-H-W-H as Universal Mind that dwells within each of us, the Source of all mind, to which our individual minds are fully transparent. Our great inward journeys open us to the presence of such mind, one that transcends all the smallness of our ordinary concerns.

If you like such metaphors, you might say that each of us is a work station of the great universal mainframe computer. Our hidden thoughts are then like emails sent in that single great mail program. No confidentiality guaranteed. Of course our secrets are known, for they are part of consciousness, part of mind, all of which is ultimately one.

But because humans are not just minds, we recognize that an opening toward the One that knows and embraces us so fully can also come about on an emotional level. Here, the broken heart at the center of Bratslav piety appeals to me more than the call for detachment of contemplative HaBaD — or Vipassana, for that matter. If it is consciousness of the self that gets in our way of seeing, then humility and contrition should be virtues that count. The One who knows all our secrets becomes visible to the inner eye when the heart of stone becomes a broken tablet and we bend low to pick up the pieces.

The real religious message of this? We are all exposed and therefore vulnerable. דע לפני מי אתה עומד “Know before whom you stand” means that we are here in the presence of One who knows us fully, One with whom there are no games to play.The only self present at נעילה is our most naked self, fully revealed to the One who knows all.

But this vulnerability is frightening, causing us to tremble. That is the real trembling of Yom Kippur, beyond the question of “Who shall live and who shall die?” Who can stand up to his/her own vulnerability in such a moment? Who is ready to be known that intimately? And so we seek refuge. But who is the one who can protect us from a God who knows us so well, seeing all our hidden faults? Only God, of course, the one who loves us anyway, as we most fully are ourselves.

In נעילה we will turn again and again to the אל מלך, the powerful evocation of the God of mercy and of cleansing. That key passage comes from Exodus, the account of Moses seeking forgiveness for the original sin of Israel, that of the Golden Calf. This day commemorates that pardon. But as Moses reaches high — or deep within — to find his way to God, he is told that it is too dangerous, for “no man shall see Me and live.” Therefore God says to him, in what may be the most touching line in all of Torah, הנה מקום אתי, “Look! There’s room here with Me!” I will make a space for you, and “I will put My palm over you” to protect you “until I pass.”

Who can protect us from the powerful, demanding presence of the One who knows everything there is to know about us? Only the same One, the One who loves us.

Because of that loving presence, נעילה is a time of joy and confidence. It is the moment best described by the Psalmist’s words וגילו ברעדה, “rejoice in trembling.” We have already been written into the Book of Life. Now we just have to seal the deal. Let us all rise up into the joy of that moment.

Meditation on Zikhronot (God’s Remembering)
Devar Torah for Rosh HaShanah
By Rachel Adelman
Assistant Professor of Bible 

In the Torah, Rosh HaShana is called yom teru‘ah “a day of sounding the shofar” (Num. 29:1) and zikharon teru‘ah “a remembrance of sounding the shofar” (Lev. 23:24), yet no reason is given for why we blow the shofar. If it is a day of remembering, what are we compelled to recall? Is the shofar meant to arouse our own memory, or God’s?

For us, memory is an act of recollection, reassembling past events in our mind into a new narrative. It works associatively rather than linearly. Just as the shofar’s bell can be looped and curved, its wail rising from low to high pitch, so memory is curved. Remembering is a means of reconstructing ourselves as we stand in the present. Is this true for God, as well? Can one really speak of God remembering when there is no forgetting for the Omniscient One?

As it says in the introduction to the Zikhronot in the Musaf liturgy: “There is no forgetting before Your throne of Glory, nothing is hidden from Your sight [אין שכחה לפני כסא כבודך ואין נסתר מנגד עינך].”  When God remembers, it is a calling to Mind, a focus of divine attention. The verb z.kh.r. (to remember) refers to the intervention of the Divine Presence in history according to the Zikhronot verses cited from the Torah.  It can be a universal re-call, as in the preservation of the world after the Flood (Gen. 8:1), or a particular one, as in the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt (Exod. 2:24); or God “remembers” through forgiveness in aftermath of Divine Wrath, as in the promise of return for the Exiles to their homeland (Lev. 26:42 and 45).

Yet the most striking model for the way God remembers is not cited in these verses, but is found in the Torah and Haftorah readings of the first day. The opening verse reads: “The LORD took note of Sarah [paqad et Sarah] as He had promised, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken” (Gen. 21:1). 

The term paqad (translated variously as to “take note,” “call to mind,” “remember” or “visit”) is synonymous with the verb zakhar, specifically in terms of conception, as in “And God remembered Rachel [va-yizkor elohim et Rahel]; God heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22), and “For the LORD took note of Hannah [ki paqad HaShem et Hannah] and she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters…” (2 Sam. 2:21).  For me, this intimate act of creating a child after years of barrenness speaks more movingly of God’s memory than great sweeps in history. According to the Talmud, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel were all conceived on Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh HaShana  11a). Their decades of barrenness came to an end on “Yom Harat ‘Olam — the Day of the World’s Conception.”

In each of these three examples of healed barrenness, what happens is the natural conception of a child, but in the Divine Eye, the mind of God, it is the fulfillment of a promise. I think of it metaphorically as the focus of dispersed light into a beam, like a laser, the focal point being the mother through whom the covenant is born, in the case of Sarah, as it says “through Isaac the promise of seed will be fulfilled” (Gen. 21:12). 

God’s act of remembering, then, is like an arrow, which gathers momentum from the past and directs the promise towards some point in the future, as desire pinned in the conception of a child. Time, for God, does not travel along a linear line, as we humans feel time’s arrow. Rather, God enters time and opens up portals to eternity for us in the fulfillment of the promised future. One such portal is Rosh HaShana. As we stand in the presence of God, hearing the wail of the Shofar on Rosh HaShana, we become the focal point of that beam of light within the Divine Eye — in judgment and in the promise of hope.

The conception of the barren matriarchs symbolically represents our return and God’s forgiveness most poignantly in the Haftorah of the Second Day. According to Jeremiah, Rachel cries out from her grave as the Israelites are driven into exile. In her lifetime, she never settled in the Promised Land, never mothered her children to adulthood, dying prematurely in child-birth by the road.  

From that burial place on the border between the land of Israel and exile, God hears “lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:14). And God answers her cries: Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer. 31:16-17).

Israel is called, in this passage, “Ephraim” (Joseph’s son; Rachel’s grandson) — the “dandled son,” and God reassures her (and us): “I do remember him still [zakhor ezkarenu ‘od], therefore my womb murmurs [hamu me‘ai] within me. I will surely have compassion [rahem arahmenu]on him, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:20). 

Memory here is preserved in the murmuring womb, once barren, and then filled with child; that very womb now yearns for the lost child — the banished Ephraim (quaIsrael). The emphatic expression of God’s remembering, zakhor ezkarenu ‘od, is aroused through identification with the matriarch, resonant with the doubling “rahem arahmenu” (root: r.h.m.), suggestive of the Hebrew term for womb,rehem.  Just as God remembers the barren woman (z.kh.r. and p.q.d.), so God’s memory is stirred through compassion for the lost child, Israel/Ephraim, promising to bring the people back from exile.

Following the sounding of each series of shofar blasts we break out in song, reminding God that this is the Day of the World’s conception (ha-yom harat ‘olam), and that we stand before the Almighty, pleading for mercy — if, as children, for God then to have compassion upon us like a father [rahmenu ka-rahem ’av ‘al banim]. The model for that divine compassion (“like a father”) comes from the barren women, the mothers Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah who were healed, and know the longing within their wombs as the memory of a lost child that must be found and brought home once more. May we merit the return to that divine embrace!

Shana Tova!

Reimagining Kingship and Judgment
Devar Torah for Rosh HaShanah
By Rabbi Daniel Klein
Director of Admissions, Rabbinical School
Director of Student Life

In a few short days (too few for those of us leading services!), Jewish people will flock to synagogues to observe Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) have a magnetic pull that draws more Jewish people to houses of worship than at any other time of year. But when we arrive there, we are confronted with what for many of us is a major stumbling block to entering the process of "teshuva" (returning) and reflection that the High Holiday offers us: the liturgy of the "Machzor" (High Holiday prayer book). While at times haunting, beautiful and inspiring, the "Machzor" is also saturated with descriptions of God as King and the judgment God as King hands out. For many of us, this understanding of God and God’s role in the world can be incredibly challenging. 

The former Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, in his wonderful book "Netivot Shalom" ("Ways of Peace"), offers what I find to be a very helpful way of working with both of these concepts — God’s sovereignty and God’s judgment. The Slonimer’s teaching brings a seemingly small "halachic" (Jewish law) detail about changes to the Amidah liturgy during the High Holiday period to reveal extraordinary depth in the nature of these days.

Starting with Rosh HaShanah and continuing through Yom Kippur, there are both a number of additions — and a number of changes — to the regular Amidah liturgy. The changes largely relate to the theme of kingship so embedded in the High Holiday liturgy; while the additions relate more to the equally present theme of God’s judgment.  

For example, we change the end of the third blessing, the blessing of sanctifying God’s name, from Ha-Ayl hakadosh (the holy God) to Ha-Melech hakadosh (the holy King). Towards the end of the first beracha (blessing), we don’t change the liturgy, but rather, add a request for favorable judgment: “Remember us that we may live, King who desires life. Inscribe us in the 'Book of Life,' for Your sake, Living God.” 

The Slonimer points out that, according to Jewish law, there is a difference between not making the liturgical changes and omitting the liturgical additions: if we do not change the words of the beracha, generally the halacha is we must repeat the Amidah from the beginning ("Shulkhan Aruch, Orah Hayim" 582:1). If however, we do not add the insertions, we do not repeat the Amidah (Shulkhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 582:5)

Why the distinction? Why do we not have to repeat the Amidah in both cases? The "Mishnah Berurah," a commentary on the first section of the "Shulchan Aruch," the authoritative code of Jewish law, suggests that it is because of the origins of the textual alterations and emendations. The Rabbis of the Talmud instituted the changes in the blessings while the Geonim, the leaders of the Jewish community from the 7th to 11th centuries, added the insertions to the already codified text. The Geonic additions, while important, are not as significant as the text of the rabbis, according to the Mishnah Berurah. As a result, we must repeat the Amidahif we do not include the Talmudic Rabbi’s changes to berachot but not if we miss the insertions of the Geonim. 

The Slonimer Rebbe takes a different approach. He believes it has to do with the essence of what these days are about. For the Slonimer, God’s kingship over all of creation is at the heart of Rosh HaShanah. This kingship is intimately connected to Rosh HaShanah as HaYom Harat Olam, the day the world was created. In that creative process, says the Slonimer, not only were all beings created, they were given an essence and purpose in the world. Rosh HaShanah is that time when we reconnect to our source, partaking of the experience of the original creation and recommitting to our place in creation. 

But how does this process happen? The first step is judgment. The byproduct of reaffirming our place in the world is the need to ask, have we been fulfilling our role and purpose? Yom HaDin thus emerges from Yom Harat Olam.If we have been fulfilling our particular role, living as the unique people with a Divine essence, then we have a place in the year to come. If we have not been, well, then we are “extraneous and there is no need for us in the coming year,” says the Slonimer.

Of course who among us can say we have lived up to our unique, Divine essence? Who has been able to live throughout the year, from what Rav Kook called, “the inner-essential I” (Lights of Holiness III:140)? We have the possibility of sweetening the judgment and earning a place in the coming year by means of teshuva and receiving upon ourselves the obligation to fulfill our role and purpose from hence forth.

The teaching the Slonimer is offering us about kingship and judgment is tremendous. Kingship is not about God determining our fates and intervening in history. It is about choices we make to live up to our highest selves. It is about reenthroning that which should be most sovereign in our lives — the values and actions that help us to live as the people we are called to be. This notion of kingship challenges us to take responsibility for our lives. Judgment, then, is not an arbitrary process. It is a means of assessing how we have been living in relation to our highest or deepest selves. 

For this reason, changes to the liturgy of the Amidah related to kingship take on greater significance than additions related to judgment. If we are not attuned to kingship, to that which is most sovereign in how we live our lives, we are missing the whole point.

As we sit in shul these Yamim Noraimmay we merit to be reconnected to that which should be guiding our lives so that we can truly live this coming year.