Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

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.

With Rosh Hashana a few days away, Selichos (at least for Ashkenzim) are beginning this Motzei Shabbos. Since Rosh Chodesh Elul, we have been steadily ramping up our intensity, and the coming weeks will be punctuated by the highest heights of the year.

But we cannot escape the reality that the Yamim Noraim are a disruption to our lives. Teachers often feel the burden of the constant interruptions: “We're just getting into the rhythm of the year, and now?! Another change in the schedule?” Parents are scrambling to find another babysitter, explaining to a boss or co-worker why they're unavailable for another day this week. Even in Yeshivos there's a tension between wanting to learn more, and making sure to get enough sleep to be able to focus on Slichos as well. There simply isn't enough time to keep up with life and Yom Tov.

By the middle of Sukkos every year, someone invariably asks me why the Torah couldn't have spaced out these holidays a little more. Surely we could spread the wealth throughout the year? And of course, if this is how the Torah has planned our calendar, and how Chazal have instituted our minhagim, then there are profound truths to cramming the next six weeks with Yamim Tovim.

Taking a Step Back

In the past few years, I have had the privilege of speaking to elderly people who are reflecting on their lives. They tell of the years they spent “in the grind”, and often, of their regrets. They tell me of the days and weeks and months and years when they seemed to be on autopilot. Decades that can be summed up by “I was busy with... whatever.”

Everyone knows that feeling a little. It's the uncanny experience of the hours moving slowly, but years racing by.

Of course, the challenge is that real growth requires consistency, habituation and routine. Real growth is achieved by small daily changes.

This leaves us with a seemingly intractable problem: We need consistency to achieve anything, but programmed disruptions in order to measure, feel and appreciate that growth. Elul, Slichos, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkos serve as our annual disruption.

It's important to note, however, that the notion of a “break from routine” that the Torah prescribes is not a vacation; indeed, it's quite the opposite. Our goal is clearly not to simply return to our regular schedule “relaxed and refreshed”. If anything, the demands of Torah, Tefillah and Mitzvos are far more intense in these weeks.

What then is the goal of the Yamim Noraim?

Perhaps they are not simply to disruption the routine, but instead, to train us into feeling a sense of meaning and purpose even during the weeks, months and years of “the grind.”

In recent year, people have begun to call this “mindfulness.” But Shlomo HaMelech (משלי ג׳ ו׳) had another name for it:

בְּכל־דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ – Know Him in All Your Ways

Rav Kook explains (מוסר אביך פרק ב פסקה ב):

וכן בכל הדברים שעושה, הרי באמת אין דבר בעולם שאינו לכבודו ית', על-כן כל מה שעושה יהיה הכל דברי מצותו ורצונו, ויבקש בהם את שמו ית', כשישתדל בכל שכלו וכחותיו לעשות את מה שהוא עושה בתכלית השלמות בכל צדדי השלמות, ונמצא שהוא יודע את השם יתברך בכל הדרכים.

In every single thing that a person does, they should know that there is nothing in this world that is not (already) for Hashem. Every little thing that we do is a fulfillment of what Hashem wants in the world. And when we exert our intellect and strength to do everything with a sense of wholeness, then we recognize that Hashem in all that we do.

Rabbi Chaim Cohen, the Chelban explained further:

A person should be deeply immersed in everything that they do. To know that Hashem is found there with them in this act, and not to be distracted with anything else. A person right now is helping their parents, listening to their spouse, they should be fully immersed in it, without distraction or the impatience of one who is trying to leave, as if their heart is not in it.

When my friends and I left Kerem B'Yavneh to start at YU, one of the guys remarked to Rav Moshe Stav that he had arranged to take a few light courses that he'd be able to take easily, and still get a “A”. That way, he'd be able to learn more Torah during those classes. Rav Stav got upset and told him that he had never met a person that became a Talmid Chacham by learning Mishna Berura under the table in a college class.

His point was simple. If we habituate ourselves to be absent from moments in our lives, we will eventually be absent from the things we really want to be present for.

How do we train ourselves to start living in the present? We need to begin somewhere, and this Shabbos, the Torah gives us an answer: The Mitzvah of Bikkurim, where a Jewish farmer brings his first fruit to the Beis HaMikdash.

The Fruit of Our Decision

It's a magnificent ceremony, where the Kohen accepts the Bikurim, and the farmer declares how all of Jewish history had lead to this moment. We read this declaration every year at the Pesach Seder:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with ... The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us... We cried to the Hashem... He freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power... He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Hashem have given me.

The conclusion of his speech, however, is radical:

לֹא־עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְותֶיךָ וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי – I have not transgressed any of your commandments, neither have I forgotten them.

That's a heavy statement. Who can possibly, honestly say that they have not violated any Halacha, or even forgotten to do a mitzvah?!

Rashi, enigmatically explains:

ולא שכחתי – מלברך – I didn't forget to make a bracha.

The Chidushei HaRim asks: How can it be that the Torah is telling us that this farmer is making a Bracha!? The entire institution of Brachos are מדרבנן – They are Rabbinic!

He answers simply: A Bracha is the declaration of intent before the activity. It's the big decision that defines what comes next. The farmer is exclaiming:

“I have headlined my life with the knowledge of God and my purpose in the world. And this little pomegranate, fig or date is the result of a life in the context of Hashem. I might not think of Hashem every day in my field, with every pull of the plough, shovel in the soil. But I certainly did when I planted the vine, when I bought this field, when I planned out my life. And this is the result of life lived with the right headlines. It works out from there.”

If we include Hashem in the major decisions of our lives, then slowly we become accustomed to including Hashem in smaller ones too. Eventually, we get to declare that “I haven't violated or forgotten anything; my whole life is meaningful.”

Who to marry, what career to pursue, where and how to educate our children, what vacations to take, and where to allocate our funds? These are amongst the myriad of big decisions that seriously and significantly impact every smaller choice. In a real and profound way, we choose the battles that we will face down this road, or another. Practically, we choose the choices that “future us” will be debating.

But this is true for the “smaller big decisions” as well: What food did we buy to stock the fridge? Food that will temp us to do something we're not proud of or food that makes us feel good about ourselves?

We make decisions to start watching a show late at night. But it's a different kind of decision to choose to turn it off and get enough sleep when our will power is steadily depleting.

Did we intentionally schedule time for the people that mean so much to us? For the events and activities that make a difference in our lives and families? Or are we waiting for the last minute to see if we have moment spare?

Bikkurim of the Year

The goal, then, of the next few weeks is to dedicate our own “firsts”. As we conclude 5782, and begin welcoming 5783, we are deliberately changing the pace of our lives. We're disrupting the patterns of our days and weeks with the intention of restarting with a heightened sense of mission, purpose and presence.

Hashem should help us include Him in everything that we can; starting with the biggest ticket items. Slowly, carefully, year after year, until בְּכל־דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ – We get to know Him and merit to find Him in every moment of our lives.

It was a tense and emotional call. Questions and considerations, a host of potential problems, and few solutions. In the middle of it, the voice on the other side of the line sighed, frustrated and exasperated: “Rabbi, I know I'm supposed to love every Jew, but what if I just don't like them? What if they're annoying, aggravating and upsetting? How I am I supposed to love a person that I can't stand?”

I dare say that we've all been there in one way or another. We all believe in the value of Ahavas Yisrael. We certainly want to be people that exemplify the Middos of kindness, selflessness and generosity. We don't want to speak badly of others; we all know the damage of Lashon Hara. We don't want to be those people. We want to love, and be loved.

Sometimes, however, when we examine our lives and the interactions we have with others, we discover that, despite our best intentions, quite the opposite is true. We are not always the altruistic, concerned caring people that we wish we could be. I'm not, Chas V'Shalom, suggesting that we're all malevolent narcissists, but the truth is that we don't always treat others as we wish to be treated. And we certainly don't act with love when we're mistreated, reprimanded or humiliated.

Which begs the question: Is there any way to traverse this chasm? Is there any way to bridge the gap between the Ahavas Yisrael we believe in and the lives that we live?

Read more...

The question is a troubling one: If left to our own devices, without any external motivation or pressure, what would we do with our time? What would we do with our lives?

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim (פר׳ בראשית) was the first to coin the phrase (in the name of the Baal Shem Tov):

וידוע במקום שמחשבתו של אדם שם הוא כולו נמצא – It is well known, that in the place that a person's thoughts are, that's where they are entirely.

Rebbe Nachman expanded on this idea, teaching: If you want to know who you are, think about what you think about when you're all alone. When no one is looking, what thoughts do we gravitate to? What's our default? When no one is checking in, what are our aspirations? Who do we want to be?

It would not be an understatement to say that the entire enterprise of being a Jew is to move the needle on these default settings – even just a little. Of course, in theory, we all want to make those slight changes, tiny upgrades, climbing higher, growing greater.

The challenge here, is that without regular check-ins, our default settings can subtly shift, until we are no longer the people we were aiming to be.

This happens to us on a micro-scale almost every day. It starts with “I need to get through these emails.” That's the goal. Priority number one for the afternoon. Five minutes into my inbox, there's an email from a company that I didn't sign up for. Great! I'll unsubscribe from that list. It's a quick deviation, but ok, we're back on track... Then there's an email from some old photo account sending a notification that the service is shutting down and deleting my pictures. “Oh wow! I forgot that account existed. I guess I better make sure there was nothing important there...”

You probably been in similar situations.

Two hours of absentminded journeying down memory lane until we are awakened from our trance by the beep of the laundry machine, the oven or door bell. “Oh no! Where did all that time go?” By then, our email inbox has only grown more daunting, and the time allotted to clear it has disappeared into whatever place our minds have wandered.

It get's much worse the moment we click on that funny clip or reel. Hours of doom scrolling down infinity pools of meaninglessness...

Despite the blissful enjoyment of our distractions, we often awaken with frustration and regret. But what if the distraction was not simply losing an afternoon of email processing? What if we lost days, or even decades?

In these cases, the divergence happens so slowly over so many years that we fail to notice which way we're steering our lives.

I've seen it happen. I had a brilliant friend who chose not to stay in Yeshiva for Shana Bet. Instead, he told me, he was going to dedicate himself to becoming a multi-millionaire in his twenties, and then retire to be able to learn in Kollel for the rest of his life. I remember the conversation well, and I remember his total conviction to the plan. Turns out that he absolutely achieved his goal. Today, he is exceedingly wealthy; but his decade spent in the world of commerce, and not learning of learning, also convinced him that he didn't really want to learn in Kollel for the rest of his life.

Somehow, somewhere, in the pursuit of an idilic life of learning, he lost his drive to learn.

Of course, that's an extreme example, but you'll hear the same dejection and resignation from the retiree who always “planned on starting their own company”, and “just needed to get a little experience” before striking out on their own. Fifty years later there's a pit of regret in his stomach at his retirement party.

Rabbi Nachum Zevin, the grandson of Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin told the following story:

My grandfather, Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, came from a Lubavitcher family. He was in constant contact with the Rebbe, and when I decided – in 1955 – to begin learning in the Chabad yeshivah in New York, he was delighted. (Previously I had studied at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.)

Obviously, one of the main attractions of studying in New York was the opportunity to spend time with the Rebbe. And, as it happened, during my stay I had the chance to speak with him privately on three separate occasions.

The first audience included a lively discussion concerning my various Talmudic studies. My second audience was even more interesting. In middle of our conversation, he suddenly asked me, “What are you doing here in New York – doesn’t Jewish law prohibit a resident of Israel to leave for the Diaspora?”

I was a bit surprised by this question, as I had expected the Rebbe to know the three conditions which permit one to leave the Holy Land, but nonetheless I answered, “One may leave Israel for the sake of livelihood, to seek a wife or, as in my case, to study Torah.”

“Does that mean then,” he responded, “that before leaving Israel one must make a calculation – namely, that one would study more in the Diaspora than otherwise? And, having made that calculation, one need no longer think about it?”

He paused and then continued, “Or, does it mean that one must ask himself every day: ‘I am a resident of the Holy Land of Israel, what am I doing in New York?’ And every day one must be able to answer, ‘I have studied more today than I would have back home.’ Perhaps that is what one must do?”

It's a demanding perspective to have, perhaps impossibly demanding. But, then again, Rabbi Nachum Zevin went on to serve as the Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Eliyahu near Haifa. He made it back to Eretz Yisrael, when so many others found good reasons to stay in New York.

The importance reevaluating our default perspective is codified amongst the mitzvos of a Jewish King in our Parsha. The Torah tells us that a King is obligated to write a Sefer Torah which he must carry with him throughout his life, constantly learning from, constantly reviewing.

Rashi (דברים יז יח), however, quotes from Chazal (סנהדרין כא ב׳) that the King writes not one Torah, but two:

משנה התורה – שתי ספרי תורה: אחת שהיא מונחת בבית גנזיו, ואחת שנכנסת ויוצאה עמו.

The King should write משנה תורה – i.e. two scrolls of the Law, one that is placed in his treasury and the other that goes out and comes in with him.

Why should the king have two Sifrei Torah? Or rather, what is that purpose of the first Sefer Torah. Granted, the king should always have access to Dvar Hashem. It should guide him, teach him, humble him, accompany him on every journey. That's the second Sefer Torah. But why does he need a separate Torah for his treasury at home?

The Malchus Shlomo (Rav Shloime Twerski) explains: Each of us carry with us a “Torah” of our own; our version of Ratzon Hashem. But as we encounter the reality of life, with all of its distractions and complications, we begins to read our Torah a little differently. Not that we're trying to twist and corrupt it, God forbid, but simply that our dreams, hopes and priorities change. We find leniencies where necessary and sometimes our judgment isn't always free of agenda. Little by little, it's possible that our relationship to the values of Torah changes with the turns and bends on the roads of our lives.

To this end, a Jewish King (and each of us accordingly) is obligated to keep a Sefer Torah at our home base as well. This Torah is never read, never even opened. But it stands as a constant reminder of our aspirations and priorities from before we started down this road. It serves to center and ground us, keeping us connected to the goals we had before we got distracted.

These weeks from Elul through Tishrei are days of coming back to the Sefer Torah at home; they are geared to provoke the same awakening. It's a return to home base, to our hopes, goals and dreams. It's a chance to realign the Torah we've carried this past year with the Torah that we're aiming to carry into the future. Hashem should help us to plug-in, recharge and reignite the dreams of who we're going to be in the year ahead.

Thinking back, there's a certain mythical quality to Elul in Yeshivos and Seminaries. For many of us who attended these illustrious institutions, Elul was our first foray into self-improvement, religious maturity and growth without grades.

We heard stories of Gedolim who didn't speak a single unnecessary word throughout Elul, and those who deprived themselves of sleep or food to increase the time they spend learning, davening and doing chessed.

Of course, for most of us, those achievements were and are unattainable (not to mention unhealthy), but the dream of riding the Elul wave to a radical life transformation was palpable and tangible.

I dare say that the same is not true of life as an adult. This is partially because our time commitments operate differently now. With careers, families and responsibilities, we no longer have the luxury to spend all night pouring over texts or debating ideology, morality and philosophy. But it is also because people, including ourselves, don't really seem to change all that much from Elul to Elul. Most of us are still coasting on whatever auto-pilot setting we rode a year ago.

All of this begs the questions: What does Hashem really want from me this Elul?

The “Yeshivish” answer is as obvious as it is impractical. The endeavor to correct and upgrade every area of our lives to be in line with the Shulchan Aruch, is noble, beautiful and impossible. That is not to say, of course, that we shouldn't aspire to be in complete and total observance with all of Halacha. I'm also not, Chas V'Shalom, saying that Halacha is impossible to keep in its entirety. It's simply a recognition that we will likely be “klapping al-Cheit” next year as well.

I would like to suggest that acknowledging this truth and saying it out loud is neither defeatist nor heretical. It is honest, reasonable, and the beginning of meaningful growth.

Where do we begin when attaining perfection is so improbable? Realistically, we can begin anywhere; with three important conditions: 1. We accept that there is necessary growth that we need to achieve in this area. 2. We are ready to work on this area, and we can begin now. 3. We have a strategy and action plan in mind – and we carry it out.

I'd like to briefly unpack each of these:

1. We accept that there is necessary growth that we need to achieve in this area.

I once asked Rabbi Azriel Goldfein זצ״ל (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah in Johannesburg) why all Jews in South Africa considered themselves Orthodox – regardless of our level of observance. He explained that since almost all South African Jews were Lithuanian, they were never exposed to the grander and prestige of non-Jewish life. “In Western Europe there was aristocracy, enlightenment, education, nobility. But in Lita, they still ate with their hands. When a Lithuanian Jew stopped keeping Mitzvos, they knew that they were doing the wrong thing and they never attempted to fit in to European culture. They didn't want to be religious, but they certainly didn't want to be Lithuanian.”

As a result, much like Sephardim, South African Jews never developed a doctrine of apologetics and they never justified their religious failures with a new understanding or rendition of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch. I grew up in a world where most people would drive to Shul on Shabbos. But if they would get to shul and see no Mechitza, they would get into their cars and drive to another shul.

The way that Jews in the US operate is a little different. Here, people are far less comfortable with sin and hypocrisy. This obviously has significant merits, but carries a serious pitfall as well: The culture of the US temps us to think that since failure is unacceptable, “if I sin, I need to reinterpret the Torah to make it not a sin. I cannot accept my failure, I must explain it and justify it.”

But in order to truly work on something, we need to accept that this is, in fact, something to work on. No excuses, no blame, no reinterpretations.

This Elul, pick something that you know you need to fix and that you want to fix. Lashon Hara? Shnayim Mikra? Anger? Checking lettuce? Swimming on Shabbos? Attending Minyan? Overeating? Giving Tzedakah? Daily Learning? Brachos with Kavanah?

Whatever it is, step one begins with “This is my problem, and it is my responsibility to fix it.”

2. We are ready to work on this area, and we can begin now.

Aliza and I had an NCSYer a number of years ago who started becoming observant in twelfth grade. Her parents, whilst mostly supportive, refused to kasher their kitchen and buy only kosher products. She came over one Shabbos, heartbroken that she had just decided to keep kosher and was clearly unable to do so. We discussed many elements of hilchos Kashrus, including a host of potential leniencies, but concluded that perhaps her focus could be on other areas of Halacha that were more attainable at that point.

The Yetzer Hara often guilts us into working on something that we know we cannot change yet and it is tempting to overcommit to big dreams. But it doesn't work. If you're struggling to make it to shul on Shabbos morning, don't commit to daily minyan... yet. If you're having a hard time finishing Shnyaim Mikra, don't start Daf Yomi... yet.

Of course, we'd love to wave a magic wand and jump a thousand steps, but that's a recipe for failure. All growth must be gradual to be sustainable.

This approach was taken by Hashem Himself who didn't lead us directly to Eretz Yizrael after the Exodus: פֶּן־יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה – “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” Sometimes, taking the long way 'round is worth it, to ensure that we get there in the end.

3. We have a strategy and action plan in mind – and we carry it out.

Our strategies are essential prerequisites to success. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter famously said that changing one Middah is more challenging than learning all of Shas. To change something – for real – is going to require a serious amount of planning.

We will need to consider our habits, environments, social circles, triggers and weaknesses. We will need to establish support systems of trusted partners and allow ourselves the latitude to fail as we practice and learn. None of this is simple, but dedication to deprogramming and reprogramming our thoughts and behaviors will take time, grit, patience, humility and empathy.

Indeed, the Gra (אבן שמלה ד:כב) notes that while the advice of Chachamim is essential in Avodas Hashem, it is insufficient when contending with our own Yetzer Hara. For that, we need our own creativity and our own strategies.

The most important part, however, is action.

Our lives are not the story of the things that we think, but the things that we do. Our thoughts, plans and considerations have little to no impact, when contrasted with even our least significant action.

Moreover, the Sefer HaChinuch famously instructs us: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות – Our emotions follow our actions. Waiting to be in the right mindset with the right intentions guarantees that we will never take actions.

The Nesivos Shalom quotes from Reb Shlomo Dovid Yehoshua (the 4th Slonimer Rebbe) that often when we feel like our head is not in the game we should remember that when climbing a ladder, we first raise our feet and then only then our heads.

There are many ladders to climb this Elul. Many opportunities to make a real difference in our own lives. The Sfas Emes quotes from his grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim that the beginning of our Parsha, רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה” – See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”, means to tell us that every day we have the capacity to make choices. To pick a ladder, to begin to climb.

Hashem should help each and every one of us to keep on climbing, keep on striving, keep on growing, so that by next years Elul we're a little closer to who we want to be.

The song “It's Geshmak to Be A Yid” has become a staple at camps and on summer programs. It's a fun, upbeat, leibadik niggun, and the message is beautiful.

Literally, the word “Geshmak” means “tasty” or “delicious”, and I find myself wondering: Is it really Geshmak to be a Yid all the time?

Undeniably, there are parts of being Jewish that are not always Geshmak. Sometimes, the Torah asks us to do things that are tough. Sometimes, the Torah tells us not to do things that we enjoy. Of course, intellectually, we believe that Hashem's Torah is objectively wonderful. But “Geshmak” doesn't mean logical – it means that we enjoy it, and there are certainly parts that are less agreeable to our Western palates.

How do we chew and swallow those elements that taste bitter to us? How do we feed them to our kids? Do we have faith that they will eventually digest into something that makes us feel good?

As a parent, Rabbi and teacher often consider how my Torah, Mitzvos and Yiddishkeit tastes? How does it make my children, community and students feel?

Broadening the scope of this question: Does our observance of Yiddishkeit make us feel satisfied, satiated and nourished? Or perhaps there are aspects of our religious and cultural life that make us feel sick, bloated and nauseous? What are the flavors and feelings that we trying to cultivate for ourselves, our families and our communities?

Most importantly, on an existential level, many of us wonder if there is a version of Jewish life that routinely tastes and feels good? What might it take to achieve it?

Most often, these questions hover around thirty-thousand feet. They percolate in different ways on the back-burners of our minds, popping up as frustrations, but rarely coming into view consciously. But this time of year demands that we address them, for two reasons:

Firstly: As the school year begins, we need to evaluate our goals, plans and intentions regarding our children. What do we answer our kids when they say that they don't enjoy keeping mitzvos or learning Torah?

Secondly, this Shabbos is Shabbos Mevorchim Elul; and there is no more poignant time in our calendar to carefully consider our own relationships with Shul, Learning, Torah, Mitzvos and Hashem. In the coming two months we will find ourselves engaged in the rituals and rhythms of our religion with far more intensity. What are our own intentions for the Yamim Nora'im? Are we trying to pass them by as quickly and painlessly as possible? Or are we planning to engage with renewed dedication?

It is worth noting, however, that this is not an isolated conversation. Yiddishkeit is not the only place where such struggles exist.

Consider the challenge of healthy eating: Some foods taste amazing, but make us feel awful. Some taste horrible, and make us feel horrible too. (Kale, I'm looking at you 😊.) And then there are rare delicacies, that taste delicious, provide us with nourishment, and leave us feeling satiated and reenergized.

This same scale can be used to measure and evaluate all of our habits, hobbies and experiences. Some provide enjoyment, but leave us feeling regretful, lonely, angry, saddened or ashamed. (These areas are the playground of our Yetzer Hara, temping us to do things we know will not feel good later.) Others, are painful and clearly disastrous from beginning to end. These are the activities that we hopefully learn to avoid.

Then there are those that occupy the sweet spot of experiences: They are thoroughly enjoyable in the moment, as well as deepening and enriching our lives. These are the ones that taste good and feel fantastic.

Our interpersonal relationships can, likewise be defined as: Those that are fun, those that inspire growth, and the rare and most precious relationships that achieve both.

With a little investigation and introspection a common denominator emerges: The parts of our lives that that bring us joy as well as long term positivity, take time and effort to achieve.

For example:

  • It takes time and maturity to appreciate that overall, steak is better than cake. (A fact that is currently lost on my own children.) Quite literally, it's an acquired taste.

  • It takes months or years of practice before one develops enough skill to truly enjoy playing the piano, going to the gym, or running a marathon.

  • Cultivating the relationships that we would like to experience in marriage, business and family all require discipline, empathy, vulnerability and humility. None of it comes easily or automatically.

To our earlier point: It takes some considerable effort until observing mitzvos, davening and learning can be as enjoyable as they are meaningful. In order to truly declare “It's Geshmak to be a Yid,” we need to develop the acquired taste.

What is the road-map for acquiring this taste? How do we ensure Yiddishkeit transcends obligation and becomes an opportunity?

The Malbim explains that the Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the instructions, and placed it in our Parsha:

Step One: Understanding

We begin (י׳:י״ז) with an understanding that Hashem is real, true and has expectations. At our first encounter with this truth, is jarring, terrifying and demanding:

הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד The Great God, the Mighty, and the Awesome, who doesn't play favorites and cannot be bribed.

Step Two: Submission

Once we recognize the awesomeness of Hashem, we are left with only one rational conclusion (י׳:כ׳):

אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ תִּירָא אֹתוֹ תַעֲבֹד You should fear Hashem your God. You shall serve Him.

Since Hashem is real, and cares about what we do, there are consequences to our actions. To that end, we fear Him, and serve Him.

It is at the this stage of religious growth, Yiddishkeit is not Geshmak. This is the stage of tension, pushback and rebellion. No-one likes to be a slave. No-one wants to live in fear. No-one wants to be told what to do, and any action taken under these conditions is swallowing a very bitter pill. In previous generations, people were able to live with this discontent; today, abandoning Torah is far more common.

Step Three: A Relationship Emerges

The goal is not submission and fear. The conclusion of the Pasuk that instructs us to fear and serve Hashem tells us: וּבוֹ תִדְבָּק – Cling to Him. Here, Moshe is telling us “even though you are initially motivated by fear, don't ever be too afraid to reach out to Him, don't be afraid of the relationship.”

Despite the weight of duty, the awe, reverence and fear, cling to Hashem, don't run, don't hide. Remember how He has always been there for us, how He created us, and constantly wills us into existence. At the core of our relationship, even if we cannot feel or understand it, Hashem loves us. If we keep working at it, keep pushing, growing, learning, doing, something will change.

Step Four: It's Geshmak to Be A Yid

Finally, eventually (י״א:א׳):

וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ מִשְׁמַרְתּוֹ וְחֻקֹּתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו You will love Hashem your God, and keep his instructions, and his statutes, and his ordinances, and his commandments, forever.

This Pasuk the Malbim explains, is not a directive. It is a description of what we will achieve:

שתעבדנו מאהבה ושמרת משמרתו וחקותיו מאהבה ובזה יצויר אהבה במקום יראה We will serve Hashem out of Love, and observe His mitzvos out of love, and love will replace fear.

With enough training and investment, the bitter can become sweet. We can learn to enjoy the challenges, restrictions and obligations of the Torah. Much like the experience that after many weeks and months of training, it is more enjoyable to go for a run than to sit on the couch. With enough dedication, eating healthy tastes better than eating junk food, and it feels better too.

The response to “I'm not feeling it” is to not to quit; it's to reengage, try again, reach out for advice, push a little harder.

With enough time and practice, tefillah in a minyan, learning the Daf, singing zemiros, giving tzedaka and doing chessed can all be more enjoyable, more Geshmak than any other activity. The things that were once chores and tasks can and will eventually taste amazing, and they'll make us feel even better.

As school begins and we ring in the month of Elul, this is our Avoda for the weeks ahead: To push ourselves and each other a little harder with empathy, humility and dedication.

With Hashem's help, our lives, schools, shuls, businesses and homes will be filled with Avodas Hashem; our Yiddishkeit will feel incredible and it we will finally declare, it's Geshmak to be a Yid!

It's 7:45am on a Tuesday morning; I've just gotten home from Shachris. As I walk through the front door, I hear a crash, then a scream, and then crying. Looking for the source of the commotion, I see that two of my kids are busy eating breakfast. Except that one of the is on the floor, quite literally crying over their spilled milk (and cheerios). As I make my way into the kitchen, I ask both kids to help clean up. The one on the floor begins to collect their cheerios. The other child, however, is standing, staring, defiantly declaring “Abba! It's not my fault!”

“No one said it was your fault.” I explain. “But that doesn't mean we don't all have a responsibility to help clean up. After all, we all want to live in a clean home...”

***

I've been working hard on instilling this idea in my children, in my students and in myself for a number of years. Recognizing this truth has been a major factor in my own personal growth, weight loss and health journey. It took a long time for me to finally understand that while it might not be my fault (or anyone's) that I grew up with unhealthy habits, the responsibility to change them is still mine, and mine alone. Because, ultimately, the exercises of assigning blame and determining who is really at fault, do very little to solve the problem at hand.

Chazal (ירושלמי יומא א:א) thus explain:

כָּל־דּוֹר שֶׁאֵינוֹ נִבְנֶה בְיָמָיו מַצֲלִין עָלָיו כְּאִילּוּ הוּא הֶחֱרִיבוֹ Any generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered as if they had destroyed it.

These are heavy words, but Chazal are making a clear point: Even though our generation is not at fault for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, we are most certainly responsible for ensuring that it is rebuilt.

The Yismach Moshe (כי תצא יב) spells out this responsibility: If we do Teshuva, fixed out actions and affect, the Beis HaMikdash will be rebuilt, and if we don't, then it won't. That's what's at stake. That is what is possible. But developing that mindset from the despair Tisha B'Av is difficult.

Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin suggests that seven days after Tisha B'av is the day that we celebrate taking this responsibility. He writes that this day – Tu B'av – is designated to the day when we will one day rebuild the Mikdash.

But when the Talmud describes the celebrations of Tu B'av, however, the explanations seem to be someone confusing. There are six reasons given, but it is the final one which we will focus on, since the Izbitzer writes this reason is the one which encompasses them all:

רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו יום שפסקו מלכרות עצים למערכה (תניא) רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר מחמשה עשר באב ואילך תשש כחה של חמה ולא היו כורתין עצים למערכה לפי שאינן יבשין. אמר רב מנשיא וקרו ליה יום תבר מגל מכאן ואילך דמוסיף יוסיף

Rabba and Rav Yosef both say: The fifteenth of Av was the day on which they stopped chopping down trees for the arrangement of wood that burned on the altar, as it is taught, Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: From the fifteenth of Av onward, the strength of the sun grows weaker, and from this date they would not cut additional wood for the Alter, (Rashi: as they would not be properly dry, and they would therefore be unfit for use in the Temple.) Rav Menashya said: And they called the fifteenth of Av the day of the breaking of the axes, as from this date onward no more trees were cut down. The Gemara adds: From the fifteenth of Av onward, when the days begin to shorten, one who adds to his nightly Torah study will add years to his life.

There are many questions to ask on this Gemara. Why is stopping to chop wood for the Mizbeach a cause for celebration? The lengthening of the night and the heralding of winter a cause for celebration? Furthermore, why break the axes? Are we not going to use them next year? Isn't this Ba'al Tashichis?

To understand this, we need understand the dichotomy of axe anatomy, as the Talmud (סנהדרין לט ב) explains: מיניה וביה אבא ניזיל ביה נרגא. “From the forest itself comes the handle for the axe.”

The Medrash (בראשית רבה ה י׳) tells us the whole story:

כיון שנברא הברזל התחילו האילנות מרתתים. אמר להן: מה לכם מרתתין? עץ מכם אל יכנס בי ואין אחד מכם ניזוק

When Hashem created steel, the trees began to tremble. Said the steel to them: “So long as none of you serve as my handle, no tree will be harmed.”

The Maharal (חדושי אגדות סנהדרין לט) explains what Chazal are teaching us in these Midrashim:

כי רגיל הוא שפורענות יבא על האדם מצד עצמו Most of the calamities that happen to us, also happen through us.

That is to say, the person most likely to cause damage to us, is ourselves. It might not be the wood's fault that other trees are cut down, but allowing oneself to become a handle is evading essential responsibility.

In almost every situation in our lives, we are both the subject, the actor, as well as the object, the recipient. Which means that there are only two ways to live life. Either as victims of our circumstance, or as captains of our ship.

This decision effects every part of our lives, from our careers, to raising our children. From marriage to davening. From success to failure. This decision effects the way that we look at everything – is this a failure, a setback, or a trend? Is this challenge a speed bump or a road block?

As Henry Ford put it: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.”

It is possible to see children growing up and complain about the late nights and early mornings. It is possible to see the sun rising and gripe about getting too little sleep. It's possible to see our community grow by leaps and bounds, and get upset about not getting enough herring at Kiddush.

Those that live as victims, get stuck in perpetual cycles of negativity. Those that live as captains, guide the ships of their lives over the challenges that Hashem sends our way.

Optimism doesn’t mean everything is great, it means we can respond to everything with greatness.

So how should a Jew respond to the aftermath of Tisha B'av, where the night is growing longer, and the world is growing colder? Where we can no longer dry out the wood for the mizbeach?

There are plenty of reasons to be upset. Plenty of reasons to throw our hands up and say that the task ahead is too formidable, that we didn't have enough time; that the weather is too unpredictable.

But there is another way. We could look at the lengthening of the night, and the coldness of the world, and say “Wow! This is a great time to dive deeper into Talmud Torah. This isn't an obstacle, it's an opportunity.”

The celebration of breaking the axes was a display of abandoning the self destructiveness that led us to the Churban in the first place. It was a bold declaration that we won't the cause of our own demise. It doesn't matter whose fault it is, the milk and cheerios need to be cleaned up, so we might as well get a mop.

This Shabbos, Moshe Rabbeinu teaches us (4:29):

וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ וּמָצָאתָ...

But from there you will seek Hashem you God; and you will find Him...

The Baal Shem would teach: “There” means that wherever you are is the place from which you should seek Hashem. In essence, be a captain of your ship.

Rebbe Nosson writes (ליקוטי הלכות הלכות ראש חודש ו:יא):

וּבָזֶה טוֹעִים רֹב בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁכָּל אֶחָד אוֹמֵר אִם הָיָה לוֹ פַּרְנָסָה הָיָה עוֹבֵד ה'... רַק יֵדַע וְיַאֲמִין שֶׁבְּחִירָתוֹ תְּלוּיָה דַּיְקָא בְּאֹפֶן זֶה,... So many people are mistaken in this area; “If only I was wealthy, I would serve Hashem! ... But know and trust that you have the ability to choose your own path specifically in this situation.

This perspective of taking responsibility was a pillar of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's life, and indeed, many of his talmidim and chassidim. Lord Rabbi Sacks tells the story:

“Many years ago, I came to the Rebbe’s residence in New York, and eventually the moment came when I was ushered into the Rebbe’s study. I asked him all my intellectual, philosophical questions; he gave intellectual, philosophical answers, and then he did what no one else had done. He did a role reversal, he started asking me questions. How many Jewish students are in Cambridge? How many get involved in Jewish life? What are you doing to bring other people in? I’d come to ask a few simple questions, and all of a sudden he was challenging me. So I replied: “In the situation in which I find myself…”

The Rebbe did something which I think was quite unusual for him, he actually stopped me in mid-sentence. He says, “Nobody finds themselves in a situation; you put yourself in a situation. And if you put yourself in that situation, you can put yourself in another situation.” And Rabbi Sacks concluded: “That moment changed my life.”

Hashem should help us to break the axes of self destruction. To see the opportunities and not the obstacles. To be captains and not victims. To, Be'ezras Hashem, bring ourselves, our families and each other into a world of Geulah, to build the Mikdash, speedily in our generation.

Every year the great Nine-Days machlokes grows stronger: To Siyum or Not to Siyum.

Frum-Twitter lights up with meat and memes, comedians weigh in, and Rabbanim address shaylos like “does Pirkei Avos count?” (All the while, of course, Sephardim are happily BBQ-ing on the front lawn.)

It certainly seems that people feel a guilty pleasure eating meat at a nine-days siyum. It feels disingenuous; a little sneaky. But then again, Yiddishkeit has all sorts of loopholes, right? After all, we all our sell Chametz, right? Why not enjoy a delicious steak dinner, so long as there's a little Torah thrown in? Enough people seems to be OK with it... so there's gotta be some opinion that says that this is allowed, even if it's not ideal, right?

Well... Not really, sort of. Maybe. Some background is needed.

The Rama (ס׳ תקנ״א ס”י) does allow for the eating of meat at a Siyum, but restricts the attendees to those who are “Shayach” to the Siyum. During שבוע שחל בו ת״ב, the week in which Tisha B'Av falls out (and when Sephardim also refrain from meat and wine) the guest list is further limited.

The Mishna Berura (ס׳ תקנ״א ס״ק ע״ג) adds that one should certainly not speed up or slow down a regular schedule of learning to make such a Siyum, but that if it happens to work out that you finish during the nine days, and you usually make a Siyum, then you may invite the guests that you would usually invite.

There are many more nuances and subtleties to discuss, but this is the mainstream approach of standard, straightforward Halacha. Of course, there are many justifications offered for more expansive understandings of the how's, who's and when's of a Siyum. Some note that the definition of “usually” is dependent on time and location, and that during the summer at camps and on vacation, people have larger gatherings in general. Others point to the value of increasing Ahavas Yisrael and Talmud Torah. (Rabbi Gavriel Zinner lists many more in the footnotes of נטעי גבריאל הל׳ בין המצרים ח״א פרק מא).

But far beyond the questions of technical permissibility, there are deeper question of appropriateness. Does eating meat at a nine-days siyum subvert the spirit-of-the-law? The Aruch HaShulchan (תקנ״א כ״ג) certainly thought so, as he writes:

ודע שיש שמניחים הסיום מסכת על ימים אלו, כדי לאכול בשר. ודבר מכוער הוא And you should know that there are those who plan a Siyum in these days for the purpose of eating meat. This practice is despicable.

He takes issue with the abandonment of communal customs, the totally disregard for mourning over the Destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and goes so far as to question our ability and desire to control our base urges, explaining:

איך לא נבוש ולא נכלם? הלא הרבה מהאומות שאין אוכלים הרבה שבועות לא בשר, ולא חלב, ולא ביצים; ואנחנו עם בני ישראל, שעלינו נאמר “קדושים תהיו” – לא יאבו לעצור את עצמם שמונה ימים בשנה, לזכרון בית קדשינו ותפארתינו? How are we not ashamed? Is it not true that many of the nations of the world have many weeks where they refrain from meat, milk and eggs? And we, the Jewish People, about whom the Torah says “You shall be Holy” are not capable of holding ourselves back for eight days in the year in memory of the Beis HaMikdash?!

His mussar is well taken. If his generations over a century ago were getting too hedonistic, I think we're in trouble.

A friend and colleague recently noted to me that there is a basic theme behind so many of the questions he is asked in Halacha. They reduce to a simple request: “How can I live the unrestricted, pleasure-filled life that I want to live, and still feel like I'm keeping Halacha?”

Perhaps that take is overly cynical, but there is a painful truth to recognize. We desperately want to ensure that Halacha does not interfere with our lives, and this Yetzer Hara is easy to understand.

For starters, the concept of being an Eved Hashem is foreign in Western Society, and we are culturally conditioned to reject restrictions and authority. Holding back from a desired menu choice for religious purposes is about as un-American as it gets. That's true year 'round regarding Kashrus.

During the nine-days, however, the emotional requirement is far worse. This week we are asked to restrict ourselves for the expressed purpose of reducing our happiness. All of this is to focus on the loss of our Ancient Spiritual and Cultural Center two millennia ago. Simply stated: There is nothing here that resonates as a value in contemporary western society at all.

This is the battle that we (and the Aruch HaShulchan), are fighting in general. We are fighting it for ourselves, our kids and the future of Torah Judaism. This issue is the front line of ensuring the relevance and continuity of Torah values for ourselves and our future generations.

It seems then, that while there might be technical loopholes to arrange a “meat-eater siyum” there is no justification to utilize these loopholes outside of extenuating circumstances.

But perhaps there is more to the story...

After Rabbi Meir Shapiro's untimely passing, Rabbi Aryeh Tzvi Frummer, known as The Kozhiglover Rav, was appointed to be the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Throughout his life and Sefarim, he attempted to find a “לימוד זכות” – a meritorious defense – for some of our more perplexing practices. As such, in his Sefer on the Parsha (ארץ צבי דברים תרפ״ה), he addresses our question, and takes up the defense of learning a Masechta and arranging a siyum for the exclusive purpose of eating meat in the nine days. He writes:

The Talmud (שבת פח ב׳) quotes Rava as saying:

לַמַּיְימִינִין בָּהּ סַמָּא דְחַיֵּי, לְמַשְׂמְאִילִים בָּהּ סַמָּא דְמוֹתָא. To those who are “right-wards” in their approach to Torah (and engage in its study with strength, good will, and sanctity) Torah is a potion of life, and to those who are “left-wards” in their approach to Torah, it is a potion of death.

The normative interpretation of this teaching echos what we have been discussing. If we are proper in our study of Torah, then Torah is the elixir of Life. But utilizing Torah to undermine and subvert Ratzon Hashem turns the Torah into a dangerous poison.

But the Sfas Emes (לקוטים פרשת וישב) understands Rava differently, in light of the Chazal's well known principle in Avodas Hashem (פסחים נ׳ ב׳):

דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: לְעוֹלָם יַעֲסוֹק אָדָם בְּתוֹרָה וּמִצְוֹת אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ, שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ. Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of mitzvot, even if he does so not for their own sake. Through the performance of mitzvot not for their own sake, one gains understanding and comes to perform them for their own sake.

If this is true, that learning Torah with alterior motives is still positive, then how can the Torah ever be a poison?!

The Sfas Emes answers by re-explaining Rava: When we learn Torah ״לשמה״, for its own sake, then Torah is an elixir of Live, adding to the quality, profundity and beauty of our lives. But sometimes we engage in Torah for some other purpose. On such occasions, the Torah does not add to our lives, but still protects us from sickness, pain and death. Talmud Torah is always good. It is always positive. Done right, it adds life, but even when done wrong, it prevents death.

With this in mind the Kozhiglover explains: During this time of the year, when the darkness of the Churban is so overwhelming and and pain of exile is most palpable, we should encourage any and all Torah learning, even for the wrong reasons. Even if it's just for the purpose of enjoying a good steak.

The power of Torah is that it can hold back the darkness, and we need all the help we can get.

Who is right; The Aruch HaShulchan or the Kozhiglover? The choice that each of us make here probably says a lot about the way we look at the world in general. But allow me to offer my own understanding: It appears to me that both are true. We are living in a generation that is walking the tight rope from exile to redemption.

From this precarious precipice, it is possible to tumble into Western hedonism and lose ourselves to the rat race, where all we yearn for is endless power and pleasure. Fall in this direction and the values of Halacha, Jewish History and the Beis HaMikdash will fade tragically into obscurity.

But it is also possible for us to collapse into loneliness, doubt, despair and depression. Fall here, and we conclude that we are never truly deserving of pleasure, and certainly not of redemption. We are fakers, imposters and charlatans; barely a shadow of the greatness of yesteryear. Nothing we do will ever be good enough, nothing is meaningful enough, nothing is potent enough to turn the tide and change the world we live in.

There are days that I feel I need the Aruch HaShulchan, and days that I need the Kozhiglover. There are values to both approaches, as well as pitfalls, and I'm grateful that our Mesora is broad enough to help steer us straight.

Is there a way to have your steak and eat it? Perhaps.

If we learn to navigate this tight rope, with empathy, thoughtfulness and intellectual honesty, we might merit that Hashem should help us to ensure that the question is never relevant again.

In the words of Rebbe Yehuda HaNassi (מגילה ה׳ ב׳): הואיל ונדחה ידחה – Since Tisha B'Av is pushed off this Shabbos, it should be pushed off forever.

This past week, I was zocheh to spend some time in Eretz Yisrael, together with some incredible educators from Yeshiva High Schools across the country. It was an eye opening trip, that focused on learning how to teach the complexity of the Modern State of Israel in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict and world opinion. (There are so many parts of the trip that will require processing so be prepared for some future posts...)

But being that this week heralds in the month of Menachem Av, I thought, perhaps to zoom out a little, and think about where we are in the context of Jewish History. To a certain extent, all of this is brand new, and yet, in the long arc of the history of our people, we've been here before.

It brings to mind the story of a family trying to navigate their way on vacation:

The story is told about family, who, after a long year, decides to take a summer road trip. Carefully following the his GPS, the father, who is in the driver's seat, arrives a road with a large sign that read, “Road Closed. Do Not Enter.”

“But Waze says that this is the way to go! Going around will take hours!” He remarked.

“But honey, if the sign says it's closed, then maybe we shouldn't risk it?”

But despite his wife's protests there was no turning back for the persistent captain of his RV. After a few miles of successful navigation, he began to boast about his brilliance. His proud smile was quickly replaced with a humble cold sweat when the road led to a washed-out bridge, with no possibility of passage. He turned the car around and bashfully retraced his tracks to the main road.

When they arrived at the original warning sign he was greeted by large letters on the back of the sign “Welcome back, stupid!”

Every year, I teach a short crash course in the history of Tanach to my incoming students. We open google maps and follow the geographic History of our People. It's a funny story – effectively bouncing between Mesopotamia and Eretz Yisrael half a dozen times, before the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Since then, we've spread to every corner of the globe, enduring the worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other.

It's been almost two thousand years, and we're finally back home, with a big sign the reads “Welcome back, stupid.” Of course, we're not entirely back yet. Not all of us, and not completely. We still have a long way to go before the pain of Tisha B'Av is reversed. But without doubt, the month of Av in our generation is different from what it was once before.

We are not living in the world of destruction, but we are also not quite in the world of redemption. We're somewhere in between. The Radak writes that L'chu Neranena was the Tefillah that was written for our generation. It's a description of how we will feel at the beginning of Geulah. The Tefillah thus reads:

Come with me! We're going to say thank you to Hashem. It's been so long since we've had a chance to be together in Yerushalayim. We're going to sing, we're going to bow, we're going to thank Him for everything He has done for us...

But then we pivot sharply: אַל תַּקְשׁוּ לְבַבְכֶם כִּמְרִיבָה – Each person will turn to his or her friend and say: “Don't get frustrated and belligerent like we did in the desert. Please, let's not mess it up like we did before...” Whatever it was before, can it be over now? We've blundered every national opportunity since we came out of Egypt, maybe we can hold onto this one?

The Vilna Gaon would daven every day that “Mashiach Ben Yosef” shouldn't die. The Kol Mevaser explains: Mashiach Ben Yosef is the natural return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. It's a trajectory that could succeed; transcending all of history, and taking us towards a world of Malchus Hashem. But it could also fail, thrusting us in the darkest of pain and exile until a miraculous redemption rescues those who remain.

The Vilna Gaon prayed that the State of Israel should continue to succeed.

The way that we look at our history, however, has an immense impact on the way we envision the road ahead. To that end, the Torah instructs us this Shabbos to take a look at the stops we've made along the way.

For our ancestors in the Midbar, their forty year detour is coming to an end this week and Parshas Masei is the end of the narrative of the Torah. It is the final installment of the story of the generation that left Mitzraim. From Devarim until the end of the Torah is Moshe's last speech.

This final Parsha begins with אלא מסעי – these are the journeys, the detours that we took. The Torah then lists forty-two stops from slavery in Egypt to standing at the entrance to Eretz Yisrael.

Why do we need such a summary? Rashi explains that it's all to teach us that Hashem looked after us at every point in the long journey. And while the Ramban accepts Rashi's explanation, he adds:

והנה מכתב המסעות מצות השם היא מן הטעמים הנזכרים או מזולתן ענין לא נתגלה לנו סודו The writing of these journeys were a command from Hashem, perhaps for the reasons we mentioned, or perhaps their secret has never been revealed to us.

That is to say, that fundamentally, even in the retrospective, we don't know why this was the way that it needed to happen. Sometime, hindsight simply isn't 20/20.

The Degel Machaneh Efraim, explains, in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, that likewise, each and every individual traverses their own wilderness, each one with their own stops along the way:

כי כל המסעות היו מ”ב והם אצל כל אדם מיום הולדו עד שובו אל עולמו ולהבין זה כי מיום הלידה והוצאתו מרחם אמו הוא בחי' יציאת מצרים כנודע ואח”כ נוסע ממסע למסע עד בואו לארץ החיים העליונה וכמ”ש ע”פ ה' יחנו וע”פ ה' יסעו

These travels of the Jewish people are the journeys of each and every Jew from the day they are born – their personal Yetzias Mitzrayim. And they continue, from journey to journey until they come to the Land of Eternal Life.

Of course, there are some places along the way where it's obvious why Hashem wants us to visit. Places like קברות התאוה – where we failed as a result of giving in to our base desires; and תבערה – where we got carried away with our emotions. But mostly, we just don't know.

Reb Dovid of Lelov used to say that at the end of time Hashem will sit down with each of us, and learn through the פרשת מסעי of our lives. We'll finally understand the hows, whats and whys of our journey.

But perhaps our current lack of clarity is exactly the point. We have no explanation for how we have arrived at the places we are. All that we know with certainty, is that our personal and national narratives don't make sense, even to us. We have no natural explanation as to why any of us are who and where we are. The odds of any one of us being committed, connected, Jews today is so infinitesimal, it is practically miraculous. The odds of our national return to Eretz Yisrael under Jewish sovereignty is a shattering of all of the rules of history. And yet, here we are.

As Menachem Av begins, the Torah is asking us to note that the journey we have each taken is the journey that Hashem knows is right for us. Somehow, this is the way that it needed to be. The failures and detours were somehow part of the route. It opens the door to forgiveness, acceptance and empathy; a perspective that invites us to get over our differences, knowing that Hashem has curated a trajectory for each of us.

Perhaps this is how we ensure that we don't mess it up again. The humility to accept that Hashem has always been the Tour Guide, enables us to look ahead without the confusion of the journey obscuring our vision.

Hashem should help us to look ahead, to see the shining future just over the horizon, so that this year, Menachem Av will live up to its name, finally entering a world of comfort.

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