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.
|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.
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
|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 r 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 piyyut, Aqdamut, 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 warḥu 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
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
You know the mysteries of the universe
The theme is a repeated one in the Yom Kippur liturgy. God is described as:
צופה נסתרות, יודע מחשבות
הלא כל הנסתרות והנגלות אתה יודע
That phrase is based on a verse we just read in Parashat Nitzsavim:
הנסתרות לה אלהינו והנגלות לנו ולבנינו עד עולם
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 עולם. Only 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
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!
|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 Noraim, may we merit to be reconnected to that which should be guiding our lives so that we can truly live this coming year.