Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

I sat down with a member of our shul this week, who challenged me: “What are we going to do about these Millennial JFKs?” (Nothing to do with the airport. JFK = Just For Kiddush.)

They continued: It’s a terrible thing! There are people that show up late with their kids, talk in the hallways and barely come into shul?! Don’t they see how destructive this is to the Chinuch of their children? Don’t they understand the value of Tefillah?

While the problem is real and the concern is sincere, I think the premise of the question is incorrect. Of course coming to shul on time is important. Of course everyone should come into shul with respect, daven with kavana, and model the importance of Tefillah for our kids. None of this is disputable, Shulchan Aruch is clear on all of these matters, and we should certainly give thought to educating the importance, the beauty, the value of coming into shul and davening. We need to find ways to inspire people to connect with Hashem.

That being said, some context is appropriate. The majority of Jews in the world, tragically, are not coming to shul at all. For most people, religion, spirituality, discipline and personal responsibility are not so fashionable in our Western world today. The mere fact that Jews are coming to shul and engaging in some kind of practice is a reason for optimism; these guys are bucking the trend; they're swimming upstream.

Taking into account the entirety of the picture, the millennial JFKs are 95% the way there. While most of the world spends their Saturday morning doom-scrolling on social media, these guys are at shul. Of course, that's not everything, that's not the goal, it's certainly not enough, but it's way more than nothing. It's a start; a reason to capitalize on the momentum to provide greater opportunities for engagement and work slowly towards a more profound connection to Hashem and His Torah.

We have a choice of how to view Jews who are practicing imperfect Yiddishkeit (in our opinion). We also have choices on how to perceive ourselves in light of our own shortcomings, failures and hypocrisy. Either it’s a travesty, or it’s a stepping stone.

In the deepest way, these two perspectives are paradigmatic of the difference between Esav and Yaakov.

Are We Also In Danger of Giving Up Our Birthright?

Quite possibly the most impactful exchange in all of Jewish history takes place in our parsha.

Esav returns home, tired and hungry. Chazal tell us that this was the funeral of Avraham, and Yaakov and Esav were teenagers – 15 years old. Esav sees the red lentil soup that Yaakov has prepared and demands הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן־הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה – Give me that red stuff!

Yaakov uses this opportunity to bargain Esav for his birthright, to which Esav replies:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה I am going to die. Why do I need a birthright?

This exchange would set the stage for the relationship between these brothers for years to come, and for all of history. But Chazal explain that in this story, there is a hidden narrative that seems more than a little peculiar:

The Talmud (בבא בתרא טו ב׳) explains:

אמר רבי יוחנן חמש עבירות עבר אותו רשע באותו היום בא על נערה מאורסה והרג את הנפש וכפר בעיקר וכפר בתחיית המתים ושט את הבכורה

Rabbi Yochanan says: That wicked person transgressed five sins on that day. He slept with an engaged girl, committed murder, denied the existence of God, denied the resurrection of the dead and gave up his birthright.

There are many questions to ask about this Medrash. Not the least of which is that it seems like a very busy day for a child of fifteen. Beyond that, the order of Esav's sins is strange, and requires some understanding.

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that Esav begins with a promiscuity, moves on to murder, then to denial of God. By midmorning that day he has violated the three mitzvos for which a Jew must give up their life rather than transgress. But only once he has denied God does he deny the resurrection of the dead, and only thereafter does he give away his birthright. Why not earlier?

While we don't usually weight up which sins are “better”, it seems clear that giving up one one's birthright is not even comparable to the others. Indeed, while we are obligated to believe in techiyas hameisim, denial is certainly not tantamount to murder?!

It would seem that Rabbi Yochanan providing insight far beyond a superficial menu of sins.

Consider the following possibility: A person does something they are not proud of. They gave into their emotion and base desires, or perhaps they caved to social pressure. They spoke, acted or dressed in a way that doesn't represent their best self. In the moments immediately following that failure, they arrive at fork in road: On the one hand one can conclude that they are now the kind of person that does that kind of thing. Alternatively, one could declare that act as deviation, an aberration, and course-correct to ensure that it never happens again.

From this vantage point, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us the road that Esav took. He began with giving in to his base desires. And in the shame and horror of what he did, he resolved that he was now “damaged goods,” beyond repair. After failing in the world of self control and morality, he allowed his anger and outrage to get the better of him as well, to the point that he was no longer sensitive to other people. That's called murder. Disenfranchised, no longer making any attempt to control himself, and without care for others, his relationship with Hashem fizzled.

If we're honest with ourselves, we've all been there to some extent. We question if the mistakes we've made have rendered us permanently scarred.

It's in these moments that we are invited to remember that as Jews we know that nothing is lost – לְבִלְתִּי יִדַּח מִמֶּנּוּ נִדָּח.

One day, even death will be conquered – that's called Techiyas HaMeisim; one of the core fundamentals of our belief. In the infinite mind of God, the past, present and future of each one of us endures beyond time. Death is simply a change of state, it's not the end of existence. Techiyas HaMeisim means that even when it seems all over, it's never over.

Last shabbos, we read of the death of Avraham:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם ... וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו Avraham died in a good old age, an old man... and was gathered to his people.

The Ibn Ezra is bothered with the phrase “gathered to his people.” Avraham was the very first Jew. Which people was he gathered to?

He answers:

כי על כבוד הנפש אומר, כי בהיותו מתעסק עם הגוף, הוא כחלק נפרד. ובהפרד הגוף, יאסף הכבוד אל עמיו

This is referring to the honor of his soul. When Avraham's neshama was engaged with his body, he was an independent entity. The moment he separated from a body, his presence is now gathered to his nation.

We are all living with Avraham. He is gathered to his nation of the future. He becomes Avraham Avinu. He continues to live with us until the final resurrection at the end of time when we realize that Avraham Avinu never really died. As Chazal (תענית ה ב) tell us regarding Yaakov: מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים – as long as his children live, he too is alive.

Rashi tells us that the lentil soup that Yaakov was making was for the Shiva of Avraham, who had just passed.

Reb Meir Yechiel of Ostrova (מאיר עיני חכמים) explains that Yaakov was trying to communicate a message to Esav. Why is he making lentils? Because they are round. There is no end to a sphere. When you are on one side of it, you cannot see the other. But it is always most certainly there.

But Esav in his despair sees only red. There are no lentils, there is no circle, no continuation.

Esav cannot believe in Techiyas HaMeisim. So far as he is concerned, his failures are too great to shake off. He will bear them forever. For him there is no resurrection. There is no coming back.

To that end, he declares:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה I am going to die. Why do I need a birthright?

His final failing is giving up his birthright. He feels so alienated, so lost, so disconnected, that nothing is meaningful any longer.

What is the birthright of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? What is the birthright of every Jew? Eternity, continuity and immortality. It's the ability to see ourselves and each other as part of the unbroken chain from the Avos and Imahos, all the way to Mashiach.

The Bracha to Escape Despair

It is within this context that we can understand the desire of Yitzchak to give Esav a Bracha. He desperately wants Esav to reengage, recommit to himself, his family and Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Indeed, the Bracha that Yitzchak bestows, assuming he is speaking to Esav, begins:

וַיָּרַח אֶת־רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו וַיְבָרֲכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרֲכוֹ ה׳

And said, “Behold, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which Hashem has blessed.

Chazal (סנהדרין לז א׳) explain this smell:

ר' זירא אמר מהכא (בראשית כז, כז) וירח את ריח בגדיו אל תיקרי בגדיו אלא בוגדיו

Rabbi Zeira says: “And he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed”. Do not read “his garments [begadav]”; rather, read: His traitors [bogedav], meaning that even traitors and sinners among the Jewish people have qualities “as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.”

The Sfas Emes (תולדות תרל”ב ד”ה גם) explains:

Yaakov Avinu did not need the Brachos of Yitzchak – he was capable of brachas within himself. But there is another kind of bracha – that which permeates even a person who is not worthy of it. This Bracha is a way to find and connect to Godliness even in a world of shmutz, distraction, failure and sin. It's a connection to eternity even when undeserving. This was the bracha that Yitzchak wanted to give Esav – and indeed the bracha that Yaakov took for himself. Rivka knew that in the long history of the Jewish people we wouldn't all be Yaakov's, we would need this Bracha too.

The secret of Teshuva, of personal aspiration and national return are one in the same.

It's easy to judge young parents, millennials, JFK-ers. It's easy to say “they're bad examples, bad Jews, not serious about Torah.” But the deeper truth is that all of us are grasping on to the Brachos of Yitzchak, trying hard not to give in to despair. We've all been there in some way, at some time.

To those who feel that Shul, Tefillah, the Siddur and Chumash are beyond what you're interested in. If you feel like “it's not for me”, please don't give up. Please don't give in. This week, come a little earlier. Stay in for a little more. Hashem should help us to hold on to our birthright for just a little longer – Techiyas HaMeisim is right around the corner.

By this point in the year, my talmidim know it by heart. “There is only one rule in Shiur: Be A Mensch.”

Overwhelmingly, my students behave wonderfully. But anytime someone calls out, or disrupts, I remind them that there is only one rule. They finish the sentence themselves.

This week, one of the guys, good-naturedly, challenged me after Shiur: “Rebbe, everything we learn has a Mekor, a source. What's the Mekor for a being a Mensch? Where does the Torah say so?”

From a technical perspective, it's a good question. There are dozens of possibilities. But in the deepest way, the source for menschlichkeit is not a Pasuk in the Torah, it predates Matan Torah, and indeed, everything depends on it; as Chazal tell us: דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה – Derech Eretz precedes the Torah. Our tradition of being a mensch, however, was forged into the hearts and minds of our people from this weeks Parsha.

Any student of Sefer Bereishis is familiar with the trials and tribulations that Avraham underwent in his pursuit of Emunah.

The Torah describes many of these events in detail, and the medrashim fill in many more. But while Chazal speak volumes about Avraham's encounters with Hashem, from age three to seventy-five, there is virtually nothing recorded about the Imahos. How did they arrive at their faith?

This question is not trivial. Chazal tell us that Sarah possessed a level of prophecy that was greater than that of Avraham! Moreover, while Rashi notes that Sarah maintained a level of perfection throughout her life, the Ramban comments that the same is not true of Avraham! (ואמר ״שני חיי שרה״ שכללן והשוה אותן ולא ידרשו כן באברהם.)

The Rambam writes of Avraham והוא עובד עמהם – in his youth, Avraham also worshipped Avoda Zara. Sarah did not. Understanding how Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah achieved their emunah is of paramount importance, which makes the absence of these accounts all the more startling... But perhaps the answer is hiding in plain sight.

The Secret Mesorah of Our Mothers

The Torah describes how Eliezer, the faithful servant of Avraham journeys to find a wife for Yitzchak. The stakes of this mission are about as high as any shidduch could be. He is not simply looking for a compatible life partner, but the next mother of the Jewish people.

So Eliezer devises a test:

וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי־נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה וְאָמְרָה שְׁתֵה וְגַם־גְּמַלֶּיךָ אַשְׁקֶה ...

let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

Shortly thereafter, Rivka presents herself as such a girl; giving water to the camels and Eliezer. (The obvious lesson here being that the wife of Yitzchak would need to be a women of exceptional personal qualities, a girl who exemplified generosity.)

But, one might ask, from where did Rivka learn to behave like this? All evidence of her family and upbringing appear to be adverse to such kindness. Her brother Lavan and father Besuel were Reshaim through and through. Indeed, Chazal (בראשית רבה סג ד) explain:

מה תלמוד לומר ארמי בת בתואל הארמי, מה תלמוד לומר אחות לבן הארמי, אלא בא ללמדך אביה רמאי, ואחיה רמאי, ואף אנשי מקומה כן, והצדקת הזו שהיא יוצא מביניהם למה היא דומה לשושנה בין החוחים.

Her father was a cheat, her brother was a cheat, and likewise were the people of her town. Rivka came from within this world, as a rose amongst the thorns.

But the Torah hints to us how she managed this remarkable achievement.

She had a mentor.

When Rivka leaves with Eliezer, there is a mysterious woman who joins her: Her nursemaid, who the Torah later identifies as Devora.

וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת־רִבְקָה אֲחֹתָם וְאֶת־מֵנִקְתָּהּ וְאֶת־עֶבֶד אַבְרָהָם So they sent off their sister Rivka and her nurse along with Avraham's servant and his entourage.

The Targum Yonansan reveals to us that this nurse was not simply a babysitter:

ואלויו ית רבקה אחתהום וית פדגוותה And they sent away Rebekah their sister, and her teacher.

Rivka had a teacher! A women that raised her. And when Devora dies (much later in Parshas Vayishlach) the Torah relates:

וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה ...וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת

And Devorah, the nurse/teacher of Rivka died, and she was buried below Beth-el under the oak; and the name of it was called “The Tree of Tears”.

Apparently, Yaakov and his children were significantly affected by her death; the women who raised and educated Rivka. But where did this Devora receive her education?

Rav Moshe Tzvi Neria זצ״ל, the Talmid of Rav Kook suggests (נר למאור פ׳ חיי שרב) that Devora was an early student of Avraham and Sarah of whom the Torah says ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן.

There were people who were inspired by the message of Avraham and Sarah, who, for whatever reason, never made the journey with them all the way to Eretz Yisrael.

Devora, specifically, was a student of Sarah, as Chazal teach us אברהם מגייר את האנשים ושרה מגיירת את הנשים – Avraham converted the men, and Sarah, the women.

If so, then Devora is the link between Sarah and Rivka. The primary messages that Sarah educated were the values that Rivka emulated: The values chessed, hachnasas orchim and middos tovos. These were the lessons that Rivka absorbed, and indeed, this is exactly was Eliezer was looking for.

Two Paths To Emunah

There are two paths to achieving an understanding of and relationship with Hashem. The first is the part of Avraham. The Medrashim explain this derech in great detail.

But there is another derech, the derech of Sarah Imenu. This is the path of knowledge of Hashem not through philosophy, introspection, physics and metaphysics, but through tikkun hamiddos, becoming a mensch.

When the Torah instructs us ואהבת את ה' אלקיך – you shall love Hashem your God, we most often think about this in the mind of the Rambam:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ—מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵאלֹהִים—לְאֵל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

What is the path [to attain] love and fear of Him? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison, he will immediately love, praise, and glorify [Him], yearning with tremendous desire to know [God's] great name, as David stated: “My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God” [Psalms 42:3].

But the Tamlud (יומא פו א) records a different possibility:

אביי אמר כדתניא, ואהבת את ה' אלקיך, שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידך, ... ויהא משאו ומתנו בנחת עם הבריות, מה הבריות אומרות עליו, אשרי אביו שלמדו תורה, אשרי רבו שלמדו תורה... ראו כמה נאים דרכיו כמה מתוקנים מעשיו, עליו הכתוב אומר, ויאמר לי עבדי אתה ישראל אשר בך אתפאר.

“And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. How should one do so? One should do so in that he should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah, woe to the people who have not studied Torah. So-and-so, who taught him Torah, see how pleasant are his ways, how proper are his deeds.

When Shlomo HaMelech qualifies this education in Mislei, he writes:

שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ

Hear, my son, the instruction of your father, And forsake not the teaching of your mother.

The words תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ, the teachings of your mother, are rendered by the Targum as נִימוֹסָא דְאִמָךְ – the manners of your mother.

While the Derech of Avraham will teach us how to come close to Hashem intellectually and emotionally, the Derech of Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah is to become close to Hashem through being like Hashem. מה הוא רחום אף אתה רחום – Just as He is merciful, so too, should we be merciful. Through tikkun hamiddos, working on our character, we draw closer to the צלם אלוקים, the image of Hashem in which we are all fashioned.

In his famous “Tribute to the Rebbetzen of Talne”, Rav Solovietchik addresses a mother's role in Jewish eduction, the Emunah of the Imahos:

Most of all I learned [from my mother] that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in a living experience. She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.

What the Rav describes is an encounter with Hakadosh Baruch Hu – a window into a world of Emunah that is all too often ignored. This encounter comes through selflessness, self-control, self perfection. This is the world of Toras Imecha. It is this torch that Sarah passed to Devora, that Devora passed to Rivka, that we are obligated to pass to our children.

To “Be A Mensch” is to know that the goal of all Torah and life is to be Godly; in developing our minds, but also in developing our hearts and our middos. Hashem should help us to become the talmidim of Avraham and Sarah, to raise our children in their image, to grow to greatness and menchlichkeit together.

In 1800, Frederick William Herschel, the German-born, British astronomer and composer discovered that not all light can be seen.

He was busy conducting an experiment to test the different temperatures of colored light. He channeled sunlight through a prism, splitting it into a rainbow, and then let the colors fall on different thermometers. But curiously, he noticed the greatest increase in temperature was where the light didn't seem to shine, just beyond the red line of the rainbow. Suddenly, people knew that there was a kind of light that couldn't be seen — infrared.

A year later, Johann Ritter read about this discovery and wondered whether there might also be invisible light on the other end of the spectrum, beyond the blue lines of the rainbow. Unfortunately for him, he couldn't pull Herschel's thermometer trick, because the temperature increased toward the red end, not the blue end of the spectrum. He was, essentially, hunting something that he could neither see nor feel with any technology available to him.

But that didn't mean that nothing couldn't see or feel it. With a lot of research, Ritter eventually found silver chloride.

Silver chloride tarnished and turned black when exposed to sunlight. A little experimentation showed Ritter that it responded more vigorously to the blue end of the spectrum. He used Heschel's prism trick and put strips of silver chloride in each of the separated colors of light.

The red tarnished a bit, the orange a bit more, and the violet and blue end of the light blackened the silver chloride impressively. He then tried the whole experiment again, but with silver chloride strips out beyond where the violet light fell. Something he couldn't sense made the silver chloride darken more dramatically than any strip under visible light.

He'd discovered a new kind of light – one that had always been there but that no one could ever see. Ritter took Herschel's naming conventions, and called it “ultraviolet.”

The World That Cannot Be Seen

Many thousands of years earlier, Avraham and Yitzchak had already discovered that not everything can be seen. In fact, the most profound and meaningful sights can only be perceived by the most sensitive of instruments.

The Torah describes how, on the third day of traveling to the Akeida, Avraham and Yitzchak “see” the place from afar.

Rabbeinu Bachya quotes from the Medrash explaining what they saw:

וירא את המקום מרחוק – אמרו במדרש אמר לו אברהם ליצחק רואה אתה מה שאני רואה אמר לו רואה אני הר נאה ומשובח וענן קשור עליו אמר לנערים רואים אתם כלום אמרו לו אין אנו רואים כלום אלא מדברות והרים.

He saw the place from afar – Avraham said to Yitzchak: “Do you see what I see?” Yitzchak responded: “I see a beautiful mountain and a cloud resting on it.” Avraham then turned to the servants who were with him: “Do you see what we are seeing?”, and they responded “We see only see deserts and mountains.”

The Aish Kodesh (וישלח ע׳ קלו) asks a piercing question: Being that this vision was non-physical, why did it take three days to see it? They should have seen it immediately?!

He answers: At the beginning of the journey, the great vision of the mountain and what it would become, existed only in the mind of Hashem. But as Avraham and Yitzchak embarked on this fateful mission, they reached higher and higher into the thoughts of Hashem, until they too could see the mountain for what is truly was. It was invisible, incomprehensible, unattainable, until they made it real. Only then could they see it.

In many ways, this yearning to see is the theme of Avraham's life. From the moment he leaves home, he is attempting to see something deeper, something greater, something that cannot be seen with our eyes alone. Avraham is trying to see the world through the eyes of Hashem, and the very first thing Hashem asks of him is to travel to “The Land that I will show you...”

The beginning of our Parsha emphasizes Avraham's heightened vision follow his Bris Millah:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה׳, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם .וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה.

Hashem appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and saw, and saw that three men stood opposite him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the earth.

Rav Hirsch explains what it was that Avraham was seeing:

Hashem's presence is found everywhere, but not everyone merits to see it, only one who dedicates themselves to Hashem – as Avraham had done in this moment (after performing the Bris) – thus he was able to see.

The Torah also contrasts Avraham's vision with the blindness of the people of Sedom, who are trying to break into Lot's home. The Shem MiShmuel notes that their blindness was so profound that they even after being rendered sightless, they were still looking for the door handle! No one gave pause to wonder what might be happening. No one stopped and questioned how it could be that they were all, suddenly, unable to see.

Of course, Avraham's vision is not limited to him alone, but to all those in his orbit.

When Hagar and Yishmael are stranded in the desert and Yishmael is dying of thirst, Hashem opens Hagar's eyes to see that there was a well of water nearby.

The Sfas Emes (וירא תרנ״ד) quotes from the Chiddushei HaRim that Hashem did not create a well of water – He merely showed Hagar where to look. Likewise, he continues, everything that we could ever possibly need is in reach – we just don't know how to see, or where to look.

The ability to see the world around us as filled with opportunity, simcha, love, mazal, mitzvos, Torah and truth is the gift that Hashem gave to Avraham, and his children after him. And there are two stages: Firstly, we must search for it, knowing that it is there, even if we cannot see it. Secondly, we are charged with the responsibility to develop the tools and skills to see it.

This choice – how to see the world – influences our entire experience within it. It affects how we understand ourselves, our spouses, our children and our fellow Jews.

Learning to See

This Sunday, the 19th of MarCheshvan is known in many Israeli schools as יום הרב קוק, “Rav Kook Day”. It's the day on which Rav Kook embarked on his Masa HaKibbutzim, the journey to the kibbutzim in the North of Israel. What is the significance of this journey? Rav Kook desperately wanted to meeting with the secular pioneers building the Land of Israel; young, disconnected secular socialists.

Rav Soloveitchik once told the story of Rav Kook's influence during that trip; based on a conversation he had with members of Kibbutz Kinneret after the fact. (The Rav tells it far better than me; and you can hear it online here.)

In 1913, Rav Kook, reborn Israel's first chief rabbi, took a tour visting the kibbutzim of Ein Harod, Degania, and Kinneret.

When he arrived at Kinneret, it was Friday evening, Erev Shabbat. Rav Kook went into the non-kosher dining room with two loaves of challah and a bottle of wine. He said kiddush, ate a ke-zayis of challah, and retired for the night. While he was in the dining room, lights were turned on and off and, on the kibbutz the next day, every Shabbat restriction was violated. But Rav Kook did not react to any of this.

On Motzei Shabbos, he danced with the kibbutzniks. For those who don't know, kibbutz founders, a 100 years ago, were an irrepressibly inspired and jubilant group. “Work all day and dance all night” was not just a slogan but an accurate depiction of the mood of the first Israeli settlers.

Judaism, God, and Torah, however, did not inspire them. They were anti-religious to the extreme, more so than the most anti-religious people you meet today. They were hard core leftists, even Marxists, in their political views. In the eyes of the Yishuv, these people were little more than apikorsim, heretics and sinners.

But Rav Kook was undeterred. In his vision, he saw the early kibbutzniks as saints, erecting scaffolds for building what would ultimately become a Torah enterprise, the Third Jewish Commonwealth. Yes, these scaffolds and fledgling institutions had a strong secular bent, but that was just part of the heavenly ordained plan, part of the inevitable unfolding of Jewish experience and history. And Rav Kook did not utter a single word of disapproval during his stay at the kibbutz.

When Rav Kook took leave of his hosts on Sunday morning, he left them with these words: להתראות ולאכול ביחד סעודה אחת – “Until we meet again and eat a meal together.” That same day, the kitchen of the kibbutz was kashered, all the plates in the kibbutz were thrown out and new kosher plates and cutlery were introduced.

Rav Kook had learned to see with the eyes of Avraham Avinu; and in his vision, the builders of our land were far more than disaffected secularists. He knew that just outside of the spectrum of visible light, there is an entire world waiting to be discovered, if only we had the right instruments.

Hashem should help us to learn how to see; how to look at ourselves and each other. And perhaps we will merit to see His hand guiding our lives as well.

The Rambam (הלכות מתנות עניים, ח, י) writes that:

וְאֵין לְךָ מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה כְּפִדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים There is no mitzvah greater than redeeming captives.

Throughout our history, Pidyon Shevuyim was a costly and tragic staple of Jewish life. Jews were often captured and held without fair trial. In many cases, we were forced to choose between giving up our assets and our lives, or giving up our faith.

With Hashem's great kindness, we are no longer living in a world where Jews regularly require rescue from such physically precarious predicaments. But the mitzvah of redeeming captives extends beyond those who are physically incarcerated. Oftentimes we are called upon to rescue those in challenging places spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

In the words of Reb Leib Sorahs: The שבויי העצבות – those who are held captive by sadness and depression.

The importance of this mitzvah is highlighted this Shabbos, at the very beginning of our history, in the life of Avraham Avinu and his war with the four kings and the five kings.

It is amongst the stories of Avraham that we tend to focus on the least, yet this narrative takes up a full Perek (פרק י״ד) of Sefer Bereishis. The Torah explains how Avraham's nephew Lot, a new resident of Sodom, was captured in battle, and it was for his sake that Avraham went to war.

The centrality of this battle is noted by the Rambam in his list of the ten tests of Avraham (פירוש המש׳ אבות פרק ה׳ משנה ג׳). But why? What exactly was the test? Surely rescuing Lot is within our normative expectations of Avraham?

It is also important to note that there is no place in Chumash where Hashem tells Avraham “Go and fight this battle...” Hashem does not ask Avraham to rescue Lot, which deepens the question: How is this one of Avraham's tests at all? He could've simply chosen not to go to battle.

To explain, we should take a step back and understand that engaging in this military operation was a serious threat to Avraham's mission – he might well have gotten himself, and his entire household killed. Why enter the fray and risk everything? The answer seems simple on the surface: Lot was in danger.

But let's rewind for a moment to the last conversation that Avraham had with Lot, and recall that it was exceedingly unpleasant. Since settling in Canaan, the shepherds of Avraham and Lot were bickering with each other. In an attempt to resolve the issue, Avraham suggests that rather than live with machlokes, it would be better to separate permanently.

The severity of this suggestion should not be understated. Avraham is the paradigm of peace and kindness. This is the same Avraham who is unable to send Yishmael away until Sarah pressures him to do so. Avraham whose tent is open to every wayward and weary traveller. Avraham the great teacher of monotheism. There is no one in the world with whom Avraham cannot forge a relationship. And yet, Avraham cannot handle his nephew Lot.

The wording of the pasuk makes it painfully obvious:

הֲלֹא כל הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי אִם הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה וְאִם הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה Is not the whole land before you? Please separate yourself from me. If you go to the left, then I will go to the right. Or if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.”

Essentially, Avraham says: “Please leave. I want nothing to do with you.”

Lot, for his part, is all too eager to take him up on the offer (13:11):

וַיִּסַּע לוֹט מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּפָּרְדוּ אִישׁ מֵעַל אָחִיו Lot traveled east, and they separated themselves, each man from his brother.

Rashi remarks that Lot's choice to depart from Avraham was not merely an economic or emotional decision, but a religious one as well.

הסיע עצמו מקדמונו של עולם, אמר: אי איפשי לא באברהם ולא באלקותו

He wandered away from the Originator (מקדמונו) of the Universe, saying, “I want neither Avraham nor his God”.

With this in mind, we might understand that the forth test of Avraham is not about going to battle at all. It is far deeper. Hashem is challenging Avraham with the question of: How to respond to a Jew, a relative, who has abandoned God, Yiddishkeit and Torah, and now needs our help? What do we do when they have been cruel, frustrating and aggravating? What do we when Lot is in trouble?

The forth test of Avraham is asking how to relate to a person who is not like us, has made our lives difficult, who has chosen a different Derech, and now is in need.

Rabbeinu Bachya comments:

וישמע אברם כי נשבה אחיו – התלבש גבורה כששמע הענין, ומיד וירק את חניכיו ילידי ביתו.

The moment that Avraham heard that Lot was in trouble he prepared for battle.

There wasn't a single moment's hesitation.

Avraham was the first person to fulfill the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuyim – redeeming captives. But he is also the first person in Chumash whose Chesed transcended their personal mission and agenda.

Despite the fact that Avraham and Lot never appear to speak again, Avraham saves Lot's life twice; this Shabbos during the war and next Shabbos when he petitions for Sedom.

Rebbi Nachman explains in Sefer HaMidos that:

עַל יְדֵי פִּדְיוֹן שְׁבוּיִים נִתְקַבֵּץ נִדָּחָיו שֶׁל הַפּוֹדֶה When a person redeem captives, that which is lost from the redeemer is gathered in again.

That is to say; when we dedicates our lives to rescuing others – despite their failings – we learn, ultimately, to rescue ourselves – despite our own failings.

The ability of self-redemption and self-rescue, are eventually gifted to Avraham at the end of the Parsha, when Hashem enters into a covenantal relationship with Avraham – the Bris Milah.

The Torah describes how Avraham perfumes this self-milah at the age of ninety-nine. The Midrashim (Rabba 48:2 and Tanchuma 17) tell us this Avraham's advanced age is an inspiration to Geirim – converts who wish to become Jewish.

But Reb Leibele Eiger (תורת אמת סוף פ׳ לך לך) explains that the secret of Bris Milah is that all Jews can “convert” to Judaism as well. Throughout Tanach, the pesukim refer to מילה as far more than a physical surgery – ומלתם את ערלת לבבכם – we have the ability to perform the Milah on our hearts and minds. He writes:

...The Torah is teaching us that when a Jew wishes to reengage with Hashem, there is nothing is the world that prevents their return. One cannot and should not claim “I have done so many terrible things for so many years, how can I change?”

To this end the Torah does not prescribe a day, a date of a time for the Bris Milah of Avraham. Rather the Torah relates that the Bris took place בעצם היום הזה – on that very day. Regardless of the day that one wishes to change, they can perform a self-milah, a self-rescue, a self-redemption.

To be part of the legacy of Avraham means to learn how to rescue each other, despite our differences. Ultimately, if we learn and yearn to save others, Hashem should help us, and grant us the ability to save ourselves as well.

Noach was a big Tzadik, Noach was a big Tzadik, From His Keppele to his feesele, Noach was a big Tzadik,

Every Yid's a big Tzadik...

During a Chol HaMoed trip, with “big Tzadik” blasting in the car, my kids began to wonder and ask me: Is every Yid really a big tzadik? What does it mean to be a big tzadik?

These are good questions in general, but as they pertain to this niggun, we might be tempted to dismiss the premise of the question entirely. Who says that every Yid is actually a Big Tzadik? Perhaps the words of the song are little more than catchy lyrics?

But even if we dismiss the song, the profundity of the questions remain, and we still need to explain the pasuk in Navi (ישעיהו ס׳:כא):

וְעַמֵּךְ כֻּלָּם צַדִּיקִים לְעוֹלָם יִירְשׁוּ אָרֶץ – And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time.

What exactly is this pasuk teaching us?

It's hard to imagine that the Navi is informing us that every single Jew throughout history is a Big Tzadik. It's no secret that the Tanach is replete with the narratives of many Jews who were decidedly not big tzadikim. Perhaps then, the pasuk is telling us that at some future time everyone will be tzadikim? But how?

Radak, rather harshly suggests, that the Navi is teaching us that eventually Hashem will put us all through the wringer in order to ensure that we're tzadikim, (or perhaps that whomever remains will be a tzadik.) That is to say, through the trials, tribulations, hardships and pain of generations of exile, we will emerge as tzadikim. (If this is so, it's likely not something we're excited to sing about.)

The Alshich also maintains that the Pasuk is talking about the future. He explains, however, that Hashem will give every Jew as many opportunities as they need to become a tzadik. Hashem never gives up on us – לא ידח ממנו נדח – He will never allow any Jew to be lost. In the grand scheme of history, 100% of our people will eventually achieve the status of Tzadik, though it might take many iterations of our neshamos returning to this world to work on ourselves.

The Alshich's explanation, while certainly more positive, still falls short of declaring “Every Yid's a big Tzadik”. Eventually we will be, just not now.

The Noam Elimelech (דברים ב׳:א) presents an entirely different read and explains: Some Jews are Big Tzadikim, but every Yid is not a Big Tzadik. Nevertheless, the Jewish People as a whole is the “Big Tzadik” of Humanity. The Navi is not referring to a particular group, or even to a generation, but the entirety of Klal Yisrael throughout history. If we anchor our goals and destiny to that of our nation, we too can be a part of the global, intergenerational enterprise called “Big Tzadik.”

None of these explanations, however, can adequately account for the statement that “Every Yid is a Big Tzadik.”

Perhaps the simplest way to understand the song (and the pasuk), is not that every Yid is actually, currently a big tzadik, but that we are all capable of it. As it turns out, this is the pshat offered by the YouTube description of “Big Tzadik”:

Inspired By Rabbi Jungreis From The Niklesburg – Woodburne Shul. De Rebbe, Rabbi Jungreis is a champion of hope and positivity for a generation that feels it can never live up to the standards of greatness of our past Tzadikim. De Rebbe constantly reminds us that just like Noach was a big tzadik during a very tough chapter of history, so too every yid today is a BIG Tzadik and can achieve walking in the ways of Hashem and being a Light unto the world.

Accordingly, the central message of the song is that every Yid has the potential to become a Big Tzadik, regardless of our challenges and circumstances. This is certainly a message we can all get behind.

There is, however, another way to understand the Pasuk, counterintuitive as it may be:

Perhaps every Yid is actually a Big Tzadik right now. Or at least a Small Tzadik; even wayward sinners. This explanation is presented by none other than than the Ramban in his commentary to Maseches Niddah (נדה י״ד א׳).

There, the Gemara quotes a Beraisa teaching that “רוכבי גמלים כולן רשעים – Camel drivers are all Reshaim (wicked)” but in Kiddushin (פ״ב א׳), the Mishna records that “והגמלין רובן כשרין – Most camel drivers Kosher.”

What does it mean to be “Kosher”? Rashi explains:

שפורשין למדברות למקום גדודי חיות וליסטין ויראים לנפשם ומשברים לבם למקום Camel drivers travel into deserts, places of wild animals and bandits, and as such they are constantly afraid for their lives. In their vulnerability, they open their hearts to Hashem.

In grappling with these two contradictory statement of Chazal, the Ramban explains:

במילי דעלמ' ולבן לשמים, הכא רשעים בדבר הזה In general, they are upstanding people; their hearts are dedicated to Hashem, but in one area, they are Reshaim. (Meaning, in some areas they fail.)

Effectively, the Ramban has shattered the “Tzadik” paradigm. Tzadik doesn't mean perfect. Tzadik doesn't mean 100%, or even 50%. In every area of our lives, we have the capacity to be a tzadik or the opposite.

Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin (דברי סופרים אות ז׳) explains, based on this Ramban that שאין לך אדם מישראל שאין עליו שם צדיק באיזה דבר – There is no such thing as a Jew who is not a Tzadik in some area of their life.

This introduces a new idea to our understanding of the Pasuk. The Navi is telling us that despite all appearances to the contrary, every Yid is really a Big Tzadik... even in one tiny aspect of their lives. Even amongst all of the failures and mistakes, we can discern in each and every Jew some aspect of “Tzadik”.

How do we achieve this tzidkus and what does it mean to be a big tzadik? Reb Tzadok explains: Hashem challenges each one of us in a myriad ways according to our lives, growth, personalities and capacities. When we overcome that challenge we transform ourselves into Tzadikim in that area.

This perspective of ourselves and each other is codified by the Rambam, in his explanation of the well known Mishna at the end of Makkos:

רַבִּי חֲנַנְיָא בֶּן עֲקַשְׁיָא אוֹמֵר, רָצָה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְזַכּוֹת אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִיכָךְ הִרְבָּה לָהֶם תּוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya says: Hakadosh Baruch Hu sought to confer merit upon the Jewish people; therefore, He increased for them Torah and mitzvos.

Here the Rambam writes:

מעקרי האמונה בתורה כי כשיקיים אדם מצוה מתרי”ג מצות כראוי וכהוגן ולא ישתף עמה כוונה מכוונת העולם בשום פנים אלא שיעשה אותה לשמה מאהבה כמו שבארתי לך הנה זכה בה לחיי העולם הבא It is among the fundamental principles of the Torah that when an individual fulfills one of the 613 commandments in a fit and proper manner, not combining with it any aspect of worldly intent but rather doing it for its own sake, out of love, then they merit the World to Come through this single act.

There is no such thing as a Jew who doesn't do even one thing properly. There is no Neshama that doesn't, from shine a little light from behind the curtains of sadness, distraction, materialism and self-centeredness. We all do it already; and in these tiny corners of our lives, each one of us is already a Big Tzadik.

And that's what I told my kids:

Every Yid is a Big Tzadik in some small area. Hashem wants us to find it in our selves and be really proud of it. He wants us to look for the Tzadik in each other so that we can learn from it, and value it. And He wants us to continue working on these middos; conquering more and more parts of ourselves to become a Big Tzadik in bigger and bigger areas of our lives.

If Noach could do it, we can do it too. Hashem should help us to see the Tzadik inside of ourselves and each other, and grow to be the Biggest Tzadikim that we can become.

The story is brought down (שם משמואל בראשית פרשת לך לך תרע”ז) that Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa once asked his Talmid, the Kotzker Rebbe, to explain the source of his Avodas Hashem. That is to say, “What is the appropriate inspiration for serving Hashem, keeping His mitzvos and learning His Torah.”

The Kotzker answered: from the Creation of the World. (ישעי' מ') שאו מרום עיניכם וראו מי ברא אלה.

Reb Simcha Bunim shook his head and explained: We do not look for inspiration from the Creation of the world. Instead, a Jew should derive their inspiration from Yetzias Mitzraim.

Two Ways

There are always two ways for a Jew to serve Hashem. We can see God as the disembodied God of Nature, creator of Heaven and Earth, or we can see Him as the God of History.

The Baal Shem Tov explains that both are essential in a well rounded approach to Yiddishkeit. Indeed, this is why we reference both before saying Kriyas Shema, morning and night.

But which is more central to our relationship with Hashem? Reb Simcha Bunim explained: The personal connection, God of History; my history, our history.

Bereishis...?

Why then should the Torah begin with Bereishis? What is the purpose of telling us how Hashem created the world?

This question is deepened by the comments of the Medrash (בראשית רבה ט) that the first chapter of Bereishis is theologically and philosophically off-limits:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וגו' (בראשית א, לא), רַבִּי לֵוִי פָּתַח (משלי כה, ב): כְּבֹד אֱלֹקים הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר וּכְבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר. רַבִּי לֵוִי בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חָמָא בַּר חֲנִינָא אָמַר, מִתְּחִלַּת הַסֵּפֶר וְעַד כָּאן כְּבֹד אֱלֹקים הוּא, הַסְתֵּר דָּבָר. מִכָּאן וָאֵילָךְ כְּבֹד מְלָכִים חֲקֹר דָּבָר, כְּבוֹד דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה שֶׁנִּמְשְׁלוּ בִּמְלָכִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (משלי ח, טו): בִּי מְלָכִים יִמְלֹכוּ, לַחְקֹר דָּבָר.

“And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good.” (Bereshit 1:31), Rabbi Levi began: (Proverbs 25:2) “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, And the glory of a king to explicate a matter.” Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Chama bar Chanina: From the beginning of the book to this point (the end of Chapter One,) is Hashem's Honor, it is a concealed matter. From this point on is kings' glory, explicated matters. The glory of the words of Torah, which are compared to kings, as it says, (Proverbs 8:15) “Through me [Wisdom] kings reign,” are explicated matters.

All this is to say, quite clearly that trying to understand the first perek of Bereishis is both impossible, and inappropriate. We're not supposed to plum its depths!

Chazal (חגיגה פרק ב׳) codify this orientation by telling us that:

כָּל הַמִּסְתַּכֵּל בְּאַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים, רָאוּי לוֹ כְּאִלּוּ לֹא בָּא לָעוֹלָם, מַה לְּמַעְלָה, מַה לְּמַטָּה, מַה לְּפָנִים, וּמַה לְּאָחוֹר

Whoever speculates upon four things, it would have been better had he not come into the world: what is above, what is beneath, what came before, and what came after.

So what is the value of reading about Creation this Shabbos? It's a story that we don't understand, that has caused an immense amount of frustrations, and Kefira, and that is not primary to our Avoda?!

Of course, one could, and should argue that there are immeasurable mystical depths to the Torah's account of creation. That is certainly true. But reading it in Shul is a lesson for all of us, every Jew in every age... Which begs the question, as to its relevance for each and every one of us?

Something from Nothing

Dovid HaMelech writes in Tehillim (קכא):

אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל־הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי – I will lift up my eyes to the mountains: From whence shall my help come?

As Jews, we often find ourselves asking similar questions... Where can I find strength, courage, finances, serenity, health, free time...? As the year begins anew, and the Yamim Tovim are behind us, we are charged with the obligations of our daily lives. It's overwhelming, it seems insurmountable, and we wonder how to make headway in a world where nothing is ever enough.

But Rav Moshe David Vali, the Talmid of the Ramchal explains that David HaMelech is not simply asking these questions, he is also providing a powerful answer:

לרמוז דאע״ג דלית לה מגרמיה כלום מכל מקום מובטחת היא שיבא אליה עזר מספיק ממנו ית׳ שעשה שמים וארץ והוציא יש מאין

Even though I have no wherewithal of my own, I have confidence that that Hashem can help me... After all, everything in the universe was created from nothing.

Quite literally, “מאין יבא עזרי” means, the source of my help is אין – nothing. The same nothing from which Hashem created the Universe.

This is why we read Bereishis. It's the daily story of how Hashem is constantly providing for us, something from nothing. Indeed, we reference this truth in davening: המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – Hashem, who, in His kindness, renews Creation every day.

Some of my friends, talmidim of Rav Amital have told me that every year on Shabbos Bereishis, Rav Amital would declare:

“אני לא מבין מכל פרשת בראשית שום מילה. אני לא מבין מה זה תוהו, מה זה בוהו, מה זה חושך על פני תהום, אני לא מבין מה זה יום אחד. אני מבין רק דבר אחד: שכל מה שעשה – הקב”ה עשה!”

I do not understand a single world of Parshas Bereishis. I do not understand “Tohu” or “Bohu”, or the Darkness upon the Depths. I do not understand what is “Day One”. All I understand is one thing: Everything that was made, was made by Hashem.

There is comfort and strength in knowing that everything is renewed every day, always, at every moment. But even if that is difficult to remember and understand daily, we can certainly see and experience it this Shabbos – The Shabbos of the new beginning of Bereishis.

As we reopen the Torah this week, Hashem invites us to reflect on all the times that His help came from nowhere; unexpectedly, amazingly, unconventionally.

As we reenter the year, Hashem should help us to believe in His help, to seek it when we don't know where to turn, and to thank Him for recreating our world; every day, something from nothing.

A Texan was visiting Israel and when he was driving through the Negev, he began to feel thirsty. He looked for a place to get a drink but he didn’t find anything open. Just then, he noticed a house further along the road, so he stopped at it.

“Can you give me a drink of water?” asked the Texan.

“Of course,” said the Israeli, and invited the Texan into his house.

“What do you do?” said the Texan.

“I raise vegetables and have a few chickens,” said the Israeli.

“Really?” said the Texan. “I’m also a farmer. How much land do you have?”

“Well,” said the Israeli, “out front it’s fifty meters, as you can see, and in the back we have close to a hundred meters of property. And what about your place?”

“Well,” says the Texan, “on my ranch, I can have breakfast and then get into my car and drive all day—and I don’t reach the end of my property until dinnertime.”

“Really?” replied the Israeli. “I once had a car like that.”

Ingathering

Sometimes, we forget how big we can become. In many ways, our Sukkos is a pale comparison to the Sukkos of an Israeli farmer today, and it is even smaller when compared with the Sukkos we used to celebrate when the Beis HaMikdash stood. This is especially true this year, the year following Shmitta, when the entirety of Klal Yisrael would gather for Hakhel.

The Torah describes this Chag as חג האסיף – the festival of ingathering. It's a festival to celebrate the harvest, store it away and get ready for the winter months to come.

Sukkos is the end of an agricultural cycle that began in the spring with Pesach, and concludes now. But Sukkos is not simply the end of the Shalosh Regalim cycle, it is also the conclusion of the Yamim Noraim cycle that began in Elul and continues for the next week. (Rav Hutner's Pachad Yitzchak has two volumes dedicated to Sukkos – one related to the Yamim Noraim, and the other to the Shalosh Regalim.)

Thus the question arrises, what, if anything do these two cycles have in common such that they conclude in identical ways?

The Gift of Tahara

The Tefillas Zaka on Erev Yom Kippur details the obligations of our bodies. We have mitzvos that we do with our hands, tefillin, tzedaka, hachnasas orchim. We have mitzvos that we do with our eyes: learning and crying. There are mitzvos that we do with out ears, listening to needs of others. Mitzvos of davening that we do with out voices. Bikur Cholim, Hachnasas Kallah, and going to shul are all done with our feet.

But there are very few mitzvos that a person does with their entire body. There are precious few opportunities that consume us entirely. And the transition from Yom Kippur to Sukkos represents two understandings of the entire person.

Yom Kippur, more than any other days is the Mikvah; literally and figuratively. We enter the mikvah of Yom Kippur. There Hashem purifies us, cleans us, forgives us.

But stepping into the mikvah demands that we leave everything else outside. We cannot enter into the mikvah with even an item of clothing. Thus Yom Kippur strips us of our earthly ties – food, drink and comfort. In exchange for renewal and atonement, we must abandon all connection to the physical world. We throw ourselves completely at Hashem's mercy. There is no human involvement here at all. According to the opinion of Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi, Yom Kippur atones (at least for some sins) even without teshuva!

The Beis Yaakov of Izhbitz notes that a mikvah demands that no human involvement is present. The waters we immense in must come from rain, or a natural spring; directly from Hashem.

Entering the Sukkah

But the Sukkah is different. It too demands a total and complete immersion. But to the Sukkah we bring everything. The Halacha demands that we bring not just ourselves, but our finest china, nicest clothes, and most delicious food. The Sukkah represents the Jew at our most expansive, most inclusive. There is nothing, no part of who we are that cannot be elevated by being in the Sukkah.

As a young child at his father's farbrengens, the Frierdiker Rebbe heard the his father saying: The Baal Shem Tov said that a sukkah and a mikveh have a correlation, they both refine the person and draw down new light. The Maggid said that while a mikveh purifies the person, the sukkah elevates him.

The Mikvah of Yom Kippur provides Tahara, purity. It gives us a fresh start, an undo-button on the blemishes of our past. In the highest moments of Yom Kippur, we divest from the world and enter into the highest levels of Kedusha, the Kodesh Kodashim. But the Sukkah does much more, it allows us to bring our entire world into Kedusha.

If Yom Kippur is the elevation of the individual thought the gifts and grace of Hashem, then on Sukkos, we become the vehicle through which the entire world is elevated. In essence, Sukkos is the celebration of the Jew as a partner with the Ribono Shel Olam.

The Simcha of Sukkos

Examples of this abound throughout the Chag. On Sukkos, the Arba Minim must belong to you. (Indeed, the paradigm of a מצוה הבאה בעבירה is לולב הגזול.) On Sukkos we bring all 70 nations into the service of Hashem, offering a Korban for each. On Sukkos, the decorations that we hang in the Sukkah become Kodesh.

On Sukkos, we draw water for the Nissuch HaMayim. The Beis Yaakov once again notes, that the celebration is not on the pouring of the water, but the drawing. The same amount of drawn water that would invalidate a mikvah – 3 lugin – is what we are now obligated to draw for the mizbeach.

Sukkos is the celebration of walking out of isolation. It's the celebration of not just surviving Judgment day, but thriving, and bringing other people, our homes, our families, our food into the world of Kedusha.

We draw inspiration from Torah, and use that to connect to Hashem in Tefillah.

It once happened on a hot summer day in July 1866 that the fourth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rav Shmuel, known as the Rebbe Maharash, was sitting and learning in a shaded trellis in the garden adjacent to his home. His two sons, five-year-old Sholom DovBer, who would become the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab, and six-year-old Zalman Aharon, who would become the tzaddik known as the Raza, were playing nearby. The two of them, little Sholom Dov Ber and Zalman Aharon, were having a debate regarding the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew.

At the end of the debate, the boys agreed that the difference was that a Jew learns and davens and a non-Jew does not learn or daven. Their sister told the Rebbe Maharash about the debate, and the Rebbe called the boys over. He then asked them what differentiates a Jew and a non-Jew when the Jew is not learning or davening. They could not answer the question. So he asked them to call Ivan the coachman, who was not Jewish, to come to the Rebbe.

Ivan, who had grown up among Jewish people, spoke Yiddish perfectly. When he arrived, the Rebbe Rashab asked him, “Did you eat today?” “Yes.” “Did you eat well?” “Thank G-d, Yes.” “And why do you eat?,” the Rebbe asked. “So that I may live.” “And why do you want to live?” “To see my wife and kids, to have a little vodka and have a bite to eat at the end of the day,” replied Ivan. “Thank you,” the Rebbe said, “you may go.”

The Rebbe then asked the boys to summon Bentzion, a Jewish servant in the Rebbe’s home, to join them in the trellis. Bentzion was a very simple Jew and could barely read Hebrew and mispronounced almost every word. The Rebbe asked Bentzion, “Did you eat today?” “Yes,” Bentzion replied. “Did you eat well?” Bentzion answered, “What does ‘well’ mean? Baruch Hashem, I am full.” The Rebbe then asked him, “And why do you eat?” “So that I may live.” “But,” the Rebbe asked, “why do you want to live?” Bentzion paused for a moment, a tear fell from his eye, he sighed, and then answered, “To be a Jew and do whatever Hashem wants from me.” The Rebbe thanked Bentzion for coming.

Both Jews and non-Jews must eat, drink, sleep, and work. But the only thing which differentiates us is how we answer the last question – “Why do you want to live?” Ivan can answer, with a clean conscience, that they live for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But if we live within a Sukkah together with Hashem we must ask ourselves the last question. And when we do, we must not be satisfied until we can answer that we want the world to look a little different. And that we have a real creative role to play in it.

Rav Hutner famously wrote to a Talmid in Medical School:

Someone who rents a room in one house to live a residential life and another room in a hotel to live a transient life is certainly someone who lives a double life. But someone who has a home with more than one room has a broad life, not a double life.

The key to Kedusha is inviting Hashem into our daily, mundane lives, and bringing every element of life under the umbrella of Kedusha. The agricultural and economic cycles and worlds must be part of the world of Teshuva. This is the great gift that Klal Yisrael gives to the humanity: The confidence to live broad, unified lives. That's the great simcha of this chag. Hashem should help us to achieve it in our lives as well.

NOTE: Please do not decide Halacha from this summary. This is purely for informative purposes. If you have any questions, ask a Shayla!

General Introduction:

  • Fasting on Yom Kippur is a Mitzvah D'Oraysa (ויקרא טז, כט-לא), and not fasting is an Issur D'Oraysa (ויקרא כג, כט).
  • If one violates the prohibition of fasting (for eating or drinking) intentionally, this incurs a punishment of Kares. Inadvertent violations warrant a Korban Chatas.
  • This punishment is true only if a person eats the Shiur of a ככותבת הגסה – which is a little less than a – k’beitzah (average size egg). This works out to around 1.5fl oz.
  • Nevertheless, any amount of food or drink is a Biblical prohibition. Even eating “Shiurim” is an Issur D'Oraysa. (יומא עג, ב – עד)
  • In cases of serious health needs, we will use Shiurim in accordance with the principle of הקל הקל קודם – violating a lesser degree prohibition first, so as to avoid violating a more severe prohibition.

Breaking One’s Fast:

In general, the Torah does not require us to endanger our lives in order to keep the mitzvos. (With the well knows exceptions of murder, sexual immorality or idolatry.)

  • Therefore: One is obligated to eat on Yom Kippur if fasting poses a risk to one’s life. Or even if it might pose a risk to one’s life (ספק פ״נ).
  • However, it is sometimes somewhat unclear if there is an actual danger, or just that we are being overly cautious.
  • Regarding violating Shabbos, our standard litmus test is: Would you leave work to go to the ER if this happened on a Tuesday? We apply similar considerations to fasting on Yom Kippur.

Regarding Pregnancies:

  1. Shulchan Aruch: Pregnant and Nursing mothers need to fast as usual. (סימן תריז סעיף א: עוברות ומיניקות מתענות ומשלימות ביום הכיפורים.)
  2. However, we also violate Shabbos and Yom Kippur in order to save the life of a fetus.

Two important notes:

  • Rav Yaakov Yisrael Fisher held that pregnant women today are weaker than before and thus we should be more lenient accross the board. This opinion has not been accepted by the other poskim as a blanket rule.
  • Asking a doctor is you should fast will almost always result in a response in the negative. Few doctors are willing to instruct an expecting mother to fast. The better question to ask is: Is there anything about this pregnancy that is outside of ordinary? Are there any elevated risks?

In all regular cases: Women who are healthy and present no exceptional medical concerns, should fast as normal.

However, there are a number of situations which the poskim discuss, that will permit a women to begin Yom Kippur eating Shiurim. If a women has:

  • Experienced two unexplained miscarriages.
  • Experienced preterm labor (even once.)
  • Already begun labor pains (earlier than anticipated.)
  • A history of dehydration easily in normal circumstances.
  • Already experienced bleeding.
  • An early stage pregnancy that was conceived by IVF. (Rav SZ Auerbach noted such pregnancies are more fragile).
  • An unusually shaped uterus, cervix etc… that might cause labor as a result of dehydration.

(A word about studies: Many are inconclusive, but there is some evidence that at the end of the 8th month / beginning of the 9th, fasting might induce labor. This is usually not of any concern, since a 37 week baby is usually healthy. Consult with your doctor if there are any elevated risks.)

So, assuming everything is good and normal, you begin fasting.

  • Stay home and don't go to shul!
  • There is a deep sense of Emunah knowing that forgiveness is Hashem's business on Yom Kippur, and that we are not in charge of our own purification.
  • Rav Melamed: If a women is struggling to stay in bed because she is taking care of kids, her husband should stay home to ensure that she can fast.

If you're fasting and begin to get concerned or nervous:

  • If you are experiencing early signs of dehydration, you should break your fast. When to be concerned? Headaches / pain that doesn't go away after 20 minutes of lying down. Start with Shiurim, and see how you do.
  • Nausea and vomiting are normal in many pregnancies – despite the fact that they're very uncomfortable. Usually it is not a sign of dehydration. But if it occurs three times, there is cause for concern. Start using Shiurim.
  • If contractions begin in an unusual way, or are intensifying, break your fast completely.
  • If bleeding occurs, break your fast completely.
  • If you go into labor, break your fast completely. You need strength for labor and delivery.

Taking Medication:

  • Uncoated pills are not food, therefore no issue. Pills with coating / flavor should be avoided.
  • Best practice is to take pills without water. (Sometimes, it's necessary to break them into smaller pieces.)

If absolutely necessary, and you need water:

  • Fill a 1oz shot glass, and put in a a drop of listerine to make it “pagum” (unenjoyable water).
  • Vitamins are usually not absolutely necessary to take at the same time daily. Take them before the fast, and after. (Consult your doctor!)

(Important Note: Depression / eating disorders are often Pikuach Nefesh. Consult with your doctor before considering fasting!)

How to do Shiurim?

On Yom Kippur, the pachos mi’keshiur (less than the maximum prohibition) amounts of food and drink are independent of each other. This means the two shiurim do not combine and one can simultaneously eat and drink a pachos mi’keshiur of both. The waiting times are also calculated independently.

Food: 1.5 fl. oz. (44 ml) Drink: m’lo lugmav – a cheekful. (Usually a little more than a shot glass.) Make sure to measure your “cheekful” before Yom Kippur.

For most people, a total of 6 shots of liquid – 6oz (177ml) – every hour works out to be helpful. (That’s half of a coke can every hour.) NOTE: Don't just drink water! Get some hydration/sugar/calories. Gatorade/orange juice are good options.

How long is the “Shiur”. Most poskim say 9 minutes (in extenuation cases, could be shorter. Ask a Shayla!) My recommendation: Use 10 minutes. That way you have less math to do over the fast.

Best practice: Drink on the 0’s (10:00am, 10:10am, 10:20am…) and eat on the fives (10:05am, 10:15am, 10:25am…)

Nursing:

Do everything possible to ensure that you can fast on Yom Kippur, by arranging a milk substitute for the baby, or pumping milk the days before the fast.

In a case that the child refuses to drink anything else other than through nursing, if shiurim will help, use Shiurim.

  • Milk drying up is a rare possibility that can usually be avoided with careful planning.
  • Start hydrating three days before.
  • Plan to skip alternate feedings.
  • If the baby is refusing formula, someone other than the mother can try feeding.
  • Try not to be nervous (though that can be hard!)

With Hashem’s help, everyone should merit a year of good health and beautiful families.

One of the fundamental principles of Torah and Avodas Hashem is that our thoughts, speech and actions carry weight. This is concretized in the 11th of the Rambam's Principles of Faith, and listed in our siddurim at the end of Shachris:

אֲנִי מַאֲמִין בֶּאֱמוּנָה שְׁלֵמָה שֶׁהַבּוֹרֵא יִתְבָּרַךְ שְׁמוֹ גּוֹמֵל טוֹב לְשׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו וּמַעֲנִישׁ לְעוֹבְרֵי מִצְוֹתָיו I believe with perfect faith that the Creator does good to those who observe His commandments, and punishes those who transgress His commandments.

While the Rambam counted thirteen, Rabbi Yosef Albo in his Sefer HaIkarim (מאמר ד׳), counts only three basic principles: מציאות השם וההשגחה לשכר ועונש ותורה מן השמים. Hashem's existence, reward and punishment and the Divinity of the Torah.

He goes on to explain how these are the three basic themes of Rosh Hashana: מלכויות – Hashem is the King. זכרונות – He knows, rewards and punishes. שופרות – He gave us the Torah.

Knowing the centrality of “Reward and Punishment” in Judaism, consider the following heart-breaking question:

Rabbi, I am a Baal Teshuva. Not someone who was raised irreligious, and found his way to Torah and mitzvos. I'm a Baal Teshuva in the sense that I used to be a Baal-Aveira. I was raised in a frum home, with loving and dedicated parents. Somehow, I got involved in the wrong crowd, and slowly stopped observing Mitzvos. This brought tremendous pain to my parents, and it's taken a long time to mend our relationship. Baruch Hashem we've come along way, and they are finally getting nachas from me and my children.

Despite the fact that I am now observant, and have spend many Yom Kippur's asking Hashem to forgive me, I still have the nagging question at at the back of my mind: Even after Hashem forgives me, do I still need some kind of punishment?

To answer this question, we'll need to understand two Gemaros in Yoma.

How Does Atonement Work?

The Talmud (יומא פו א׳), quoting Rabbi Yishmael explains that their are four different categories of transgression, each of which carry their own process of atonement:

עָבַר עַל עֲשֵׂה וְשָׁב — אֵינוֹ זָז מִשָּׁם עַד שֶׁמּוֹחֲלִין לוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שׁוּבוּ בָּנִים שׁוֹבָבִים״. עָבַר עַל לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה — תְּשׁוּבָה תּוֹלָה, וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם״. עָבַר עַל כָּרֵיתוֹת וּמִיתוֹת בֵּית דִּין וְעָשָׂה תְּשׁוּבָה — תְּשׁוּבָה וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים תּוֹלִין, וְיִסּוּרִין מְמָרְקִין. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּפָקַדְתִּי בְשֵׁבֶט פִּשְׁעָם וּבִנְגָעִים עֲוֹנָם״. אֲבָל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ חִילּוּל הַשֵּׁם בְּיָדוֹ — אֵין לוֹ כֹּחַ בִּתְשׁוּבָה לִתְלוֹת וְלֹא בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים לְכַפֵּר וְלֹא בְּיִסּוּרִין לְמָרֵק, אֶלָּא כּוּלָּן תּוֹלִין, וּמִיתָה מְמָרֶקֶת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְנִגְלָה בְאׇזְנָי ה׳ צְבָאוֹת אִם יְכוּפַּר הֶעָוֹן הַזֶּה לָכֶם עַד תְּמוּתוּן״.

(1) If one violates a positive mitzva and repents, he is forgiven immediately, even before he moves from his place.

(2) If one violates a prohibition and repents, repentance suspends his punishment and Yom Kippur atones for his sin.

(3) If one commits a transgression that warrants karet or a sin punishable by death from the earthly court and then repents, repentance and Yom Kippur suspend his punishment, and suffering absolves and completes the atonement.

(4) But in the case of one who has caused desecration of God’s name, his repentance has no power to suspend punishment, nor does Yom Kippur have power to atone for his sin, nor does suffering alone have power to absolve him. Rather, all these suspend punishment, and death absolves him.

It appears from this Gemara that Teshuva is only one stage in the process of cleansing and atonement. As such, the Baal Teshuva – however sincere and heartfelt as he may be – will still need to undergo the requisite punishments. Indeed, the Rambam (הל׳ תשובה א:ד) codifies these four gradations.

This Gemara, however, is rendered more complex by the very next page of Talmud (יומא פו ב׳), stating a well known teaching of Reish Lakish:

אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה שֶׁזְּדוֹנוֹת נַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ כִּשְׁגָגוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שׁוּבָה יִשְׂרָאֵל עַד ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי כָשַׁלְתָּ בַּעֲוֹנֶךָ״, הָא ״עָוֹן״ — מֵזִיד הוּא, וְקָא קָרֵי לֵיהּ מִכְשׁוֹל. אִינִי?! וְהָאָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ: גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה שֶׁזְּדוֹנוֹת נַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ כִּזְכִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּבְשׁוּב רָשָׁע מֵרִשְׁעָתוֹ וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה עֲלֵיהֶם (חָיֹה) יִחְיֶה״! לָא קַשְׁיָא: כָּאן מֵאַהֲבָה, כָּאן מִיִּרְאָה.

Reish Lakish said: Great is Teshuva, as the sinner's intentional sins are counted for him as mistakes... The Gemara asks: Is that so? Didn’t Reish Lakish himself say: Great is repentance, as one’s intentional sins are counted for him as merits?!... The Gemara explains: When one does תשובה מאהבה – Teshuva out of love, his sins become like merits; but, when one repents out of fear – תשובה מיראה, his sins are counted as unwitting transgressions.

These two Gemaros require clarification. In order to achieve full atonement, Teshuva (and punishments) are necessary. But there are two types of Teshuva (love and fear.) The question is: Are Rabbi Yishmael's four categories of sin and punishment talking about “Teshuva out of Love” or “Teshuva out of Fear”?

Of course, there is no “practical” difference in how we understand Hashem's Justice, but the answer to this question has serious ramifications on how we understand the Teshuva process. Moreover, the knowledge that punishment is unavoidable might serve as a psychological and emotional deterrent to beginning Teshuva at all.

Option One: Rabbi Yishmael is talking about both types of Teshuva. Regardless of the emotion of Teshuva, punishment is required to remove the sin. The only difference is what remains at the end. Teshuva from Love will result in the sin becoming a merit, Teshuva from Fear will result in the sin becoming a mistake.

Option Two: Rabbi Yishmael is talking about only Teshuva from Fear. Since this type of Teshuva downgrades the sin to a mistake, it still requires a cleansing process (punishment). However, Teshuva from Love will transform the sin entirely, removing any need for punishment.

How do we Pasken?

It appears that our Gedolim from across the spectrum of communities pasken Option Two; that is to say: One who does Teshuva from Love escapes all the punishment that their sins have accrued.

This is the approach of the Sefer Charedim (פרק ס״ה), The Minchas Chinuch (מצוה שסד בסוף), the Chida (חומת אנך על שיר השירים ו׳:ג׳:א) and the Koziglover (ארץ צבי – יוה״כ תרפ״ז)

(The Bnei Yissaschar (תשרי מאמר ד, דרוש יד) quotes the Chida, and adds that while this reading of the Gemara is not well known, since the Chida paskened so in the Beis Din shel Matah, so must be the Halacha in the Beis Din Shel Maalah.)

This is also the opinion of Rav Kook in his Siddur (עולת ראיה תפילת נעילה). There, he explains that our final Vidui on Yom Kippur ends with the plea:

ומה שחטאתי לפניך מרק ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי יסורים וחליים רעים – that which I have sinned before You, Hashem, please remove in Your great mercy, but not through pain, punishments and sickness.

How can a person ask of Hashem to forgive them without any punishments? Rav Kook explains:

אך במי ששב מאהבה, שזדונות נעשו כזכויות, נראה שאין צריך יסורים.

One who does Teshuva from Love, whose sins are transformed into merits, it would appear that they no longer need punishments.

At the end of Yom Kippur, we ask Hashem to enable us to do Teshuva Me'Ahava.

***

Thus far, we have explained how Teshuva from Love is so powerfully transformative, that it removes all hints of the sin.

I would like to add a thought – that I am nervous to write – because I do not know if it is correct.

Consider someone who has entrenched themselves in a negative behavior pattern; whatever it may be, from anger to addiction. Teshuva from Fear entails changing their life and habits as a result of some fear. Perhaps they are afraid of the pain it brings them, perhaps the threats of their spouse, perhaps fear of Hashem. Reasonably, however, we would consider this change Teshuva M'Yirah; even if their fear was not Fear of Hashem.

Likewise, we could humbly suggest, that Teshuva from Love could be achieved by Ahavas Yisrael as well. That is to say: One who changes their life around, returns to Torah, Mitzvos and Middos Tovos, because of their love for their spouse, their children, their parents and Klal Yisrael, has also reached a level of Teshuva Me'Ahava.

Perhaps, for this reason, we are careful to ask each other for forgiveness before Yom Kippur. We might not know how to return to Love Hashem completely, but we can certainly begin by loving His children. Ahavas Yisrael provides the opening for Ahavas Hashem.

I do not know if this chiddush is correct, but the attempt to return to Hashem and His Torah by loving each other is certainly Ratzon Hashem.

The Nefesh HaChaim famously taught that our mitzvos have a profound effect on the world; often far beyond what we can perceive. If we truly love each other, we could never do anything to ruin the world for each other. That's the starting point. This Shabbos Shuva and Yom Kippur, when we examine the way we live and the choices that we make, we should know that we have an impact on the world; and from our great Ahavas Yisrael, perhaps we might return to Hashem as well.

Hashem should help us to be zocheh to Teshuva Sheleima – to return to Hashem and His Torah, to Mitzvos and to one another.

Jewish stories have a unique romanticism to them. There's a surreal sense of destiny and mystery, asking us, ever so slightly, to suspend our sense of reality and grasp onto a world just beyond what might be possible. I love our stories; both reading and telling them. But sometimes I wonder, perhaps, about telling one of our own.

In my mind's eye, I'd like to imagine that when we tell the story of our Yamim Noraim this year, we are standing together, you and me, like angels. We listen closely as the sounds of the Shofar pierce the heavens as they pierce our hearts and souls. The prosecuting angels cower in terror, and Hashem welcomes us home. He holds onto each and every word and tear, and prepares to shower us with serenity, clarity, health, healing, peace and prosperity.

As the sun rises on Rosh Hashana morning we have all completed a reckoning of our misgivings. Each of us has tallied all the moments we have wasted, all the lost opportunities, the minor faults, down to the details we might have missed in our service of Hashem. Our hearts are filled with soulful regret; we redouble our convictions that this year we will work harder, love more, try again, fly even higher.

In our story, our children are standing quietly by our sides with anticipation, following along in their own machzorim. They are yearning, engaged, their hearts and souls on fire. Their sweet voices join our own, as we all beseech the Almighty for His lofty redemption, and a national return to Yerushalayim.

In our story, no one is looking a the clock. Time stands still. The world is on pause. All that we know is this moment; this elevated slice of time beyond space, beyond reality.

No one is complaining about their seat, no one even notices the air conditioning, or the weather. No one is commenting on the choice or length of the tunes. None of us would dare utter a sound to disturb the serene transcendence of the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe!

***

It's a good story. But my mind's eye is probably not a good reflection of reality. Hopes, dreams and possibilities? Perhaps...

The truth, however, is that we are not angels; you and me. Our mistakes fill pages beyond the ledgers of Bittul Torah and wasted moments. Our failures are not limited to the Brachos that we didn't make with enough kavana.

We have other issues, and our fault lines run deeper than the stories we're willing to tell. If we are honest with ourselves, it is not always clear that we will or that we even want to make the changes that we know we need to make. Our records have many more blemishes than we are comfortable admitting.

Often, to our great shame and pain, the example we set for our children (in shul and out) is not exactly the model of exemplary chinuch. Our young kids seem far more likely to be arguing over a lolly pop and staring into space than pleading with the Almighty for Redemption. And our older children and teens are more desperate to finish davening than we are. Or perhaps they're just more honest about it.

Of course, almost everyone is looking at the clock, and for many, the most heartfelt of our prayers is: Please God, let us merit to be counted amongst the “many congregations” who “omit this piyut and continue on page...”

We are not good at these Days of Awe.

We struggle to feel “it” for any sustainable length of time. Instead of Awe, we feel the weight of guilt, of our inability to maintain focus, concentration and sincerity during the most consequential moments of the year.

Dutifully, we are drawn to Shul. But in our shame, we resort to distractions and cynicism, wondering if any of our efforts are real; and if we have made any impact during these Days of Awe.

So we count the pages. Take breaks outside. Get distracted. Schmooze with a friend. Perhaps we'll take the “Frum” way out and open a Sefer; catch up on the Daf. Either way, our guilt compounds; like a kid showing up to school without his homework, desperately hoping that the teacher does not ask for it. We'll breathe a sigh of relief with the last blasts of the Shofar.

We are not ready for these Days of Awe.

The Origins of Awe

It's unclear who first coined the term “Yamim Noraim”. Our earliest reference in print is found in the Maharil (14th Century). Since then, the term has permeated Halachik and Hashkafik writing ever since. In the minds, hearts and texts of our people, these days are “Days of Awe”.

But “Awe” is not a feeling that our generation is used to feeling. We do not react positively to feelings of dread or fear. We do not take kindly to threats, and we don't responds well to shame and guilt.

Granted, this might well be a weakness in us, but years of teaching and parenting has convinced me that there is little benefit in shaming anyone who believes that they have failed before even beginning.

Perhaps we should question the purpose of this emotion. Is this the primary feeling that we should aim for in coming to Shul?

The Mishna Berura (קנא:א׳) writes that the Torah's requirements of מקדשי תיראו – fear, awe and reverence for the Beis HaMikdash, are also applicable and obligatory in our Shuls, our Mikdash Me'at as well.

In the Shulchan Aruch and the Poskim there are many details that govern the decorum, usage and behaviors that are appropriate for a Shul, all derived from the expectations of being in the House of Hashem.

But in a stunning reversal, the Meshech Chochma (דברים לד:יב) explains that מורא מקדש – the obligation to revere sacred spaces – is not a prescription of what we must achieve, but a correction. We are only obligated in awe, to ensure a measured experience.

דבמקדש שהשכינה שורה ועשרה נסים נעשו, ומרוב ההרגל של האדם בדביקות להשי”ת נקל למצוא מדת האהבה, לכך הזהירה תורה וממקדשי תיראו, ששם נקל לבעוט ולסור מדת הפחד מהאדם. ולכן אין עשה דוחה ל”ת שבמקדש... ולכך את ד' אלדיך תירא ואותו תעבוד, כי במקום העבודה נקל לקנות אהבה, צוה על היראה... In the Mikdash, where the presence of Hashem is felt, and ten miracles happened every day; and from the ease, comfort and regularity of connecting to Hashem, attaining Love of Hashem was simple. For this reason, the Torah warns “Show Awe in My Mikdash”... Likewise, when the Torah commands “Serve Hashem and Fear Him,” it is because Love is already simply achieved by serving Him, therefore the Torah commands fear...

The base line of our relationship with Hashem is supposed to be love, connection and desire. But in order to ensure that Hashem is still the King and that we are not too casual, the Torah offers מורא מקדש as a counterweight.

That is to say: If the awe and reverence we are aiming for is not built on a solid foundation of connection, yearning, love and positivity, then we're getting it horribly wrong. If our religious experience is dominated by feelings of fear, shame and guilt, then the most essential component in our relationship with Hashem is tragically lacking.

Same Days, Different Names

Perhaps then, it is worth considering that “Yamim Noraim” is only the “second best” name for these days. First place goes to a different designation: Chazal and the Rishonim called these days ימי רצון – Days of Desire, Days of Will. (ע׳ ביאור הגר״א תקפ״א:א׳).

The original forty days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur were the days that Hashem took us back. After the colossal failure of the Golden Calf, Hashem still wanted us: ימי רצון, indeed. The Gra explains that this idea in expressed in the text of Mussaf:

אַתָּה בְחַרְתָּנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אָהַבְתָּ אותָנוּ וְרָצִיתָ בָּנוּ You chose us from all the nations (on Pesach). You loved us (on Shavuos, when You gave us the Torah). And You wanted us (on Sukkos, after taking us back on Yom Kippur.)

How might we feel if we focused on feeling needed rather than feeling needy? How different might these Yamim Noraim be, if we used our time in Shul to reimagine ourselves as Awesome, rather than Awful?

We've Been Here Before

Lest you think that this is some new-age idea, please know, it is not my Chiddush. When our ancestors retuned from Bavel to rebuild the Second Beis HaMikdash, they too felt lost, ill prepared, and empty. Those who returned were overwhelmingly ignorant and destitute.

On the first Rosh Hashana after the Walls of Yerushalayim had been rebuilt, Ezra and Nechemia gathered the broken survivors of exile and they read from the Torah. As those poor Jews listened, they began to cry in their pain, fear and inadequacy.

Ezra and Nechemia beg of them to dry their tears, as they declare:

...הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ־הוּא לה׳ אֱלֹקיכֶם אַל־תִּתְאַבְּלוּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּוּ כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל־הָעָם כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה. אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַקִּים וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ ...וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ כִּי־חֶדְוַת ה׳ הִיא מָעֻזְּכֶם׃. וַיֵּלְכוּ כָל־הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת וְלַעֲשׂוֹת שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹדִיעוּ לָהֶם׃

“This day is holy to Hashem your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Torah... “Go, eat delicious foods and drink fine drinks and send gifts to those who have nothing, for the day is holy to our God. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.” Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.

Hashem should help us, during these Yemei Ratzon, that we too should merit to understand. Perhaps then, our story can indeed be told. All that Hashem wants is to hold onto each and every word and tear, and shower us with serenity, clarity, health, healing, peace and prosperity. He wants to sign and seal us in the Book of the Greatest Life.

In return, He asks that we want Him too; that our lives should be lived for Him – למענך אלקים חיים.

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.