Shemini Atzeres / Simchas Torah 5779

What are we celebrating?[1]

שבעת ימים תחג…והיית אך שמח
You shall celebrate for seven days…and you shall be only joyful[2]

The holiday of Shemini Atzeres is one of those interesting festivals with no associated paraphernalia[3]. Rosh Hashanah has the Shofar, Sukkos has the Sukkah, Pesach has Matzah. The celebration of each festival seems to be accompanied with some sort of item or activity to add a focus to the festivities. They are usually associated with some event, which is the cause of the celebration. What are we celebrating on the holiday of Shemini Atzeres? In fact, the Torah, with regards to Sukkos, tells us to be “only” joyful. The gemarra expounds[4] the extraneous word “only”[5] to be teaching us that Shemini Atzeres is also a time of joy. What are we joyful about on Shemini Atzeres?

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Sukkos 2 5779

The fruit that dwells on its tree from year to year[1]

כתפוח בעצי היער כן דודי בין הבנים וגו’‏
Like a tapuach in the trees of the forest, so too is my beloved amongst the children…[2]

The gemarra asks[3]: why does the verse liken the Jewish people to a tapuach tree? The answer is, to teach us that just like a tapuach tree has its fruit grow before its leaves, so too the Jewish people gave precedence to “we will do” over “we will listen”[4]. While this is a nice, short, lesson, at first glance there are a couple of issues[5]. First, the word tapuach usually refers to an apple. An apple tree does not have its fruit grow before its leaves. Like most fruit trees, the leaves come first. Consequently, some explain that the tapuach here is referring to an esrog. We see this from the verse וריח אפך כתפוחים, the scent of your breath is like tapuchim[6]. The Aramaic translation[7] tells us that its referring to an esrog. We see from here then that a tapuach can also refer to an esrog. This works well because the esrog tree in fact retains its fruit from year to year. When last year’s leaves fall off, new ones take their place. Thus, arriving after the fruit. However, the second question is harder to resolve. This verse, which Chazal say likens the Jewish people to an esrog, is really referring to Hashem[8]! Why do they say it is referring to the Jewish people?

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Sukkos 5779

The collective sukkah[1]

בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים כל-האזרח בישראל ישבו בסכת
You shall dwell in sukkos for seven days; every citizen in Israel will dwell in sukkos[2]

Chazal learn[3] from this verse that, hypothetically speaking, the entire Jewish people can fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah using one sukkah for everybody[4]. Each person would use it, one after the other. However, how can this be? There is an obligation to turn one’s sukkah into their permanent dwelling[5]. We are supposed to spend day and night there. This isn’t possible to accomplish if everyone had to share one sukkah[6]! Another question: why does the verse start in second person, תשבו, and end in third person, ישבו? It starts with you shall dwell, and ends they will dwell.

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HaAzinu 5779

The retractable flame[1]

אם שנותי ברק חרבי ותאחז במפשט ידי וגו’‏
If I’ll whet My flashing[2] blade and My hand will grasp judgement…[3]

This week’s parsha contains Moshe’s parting song to the people. It contains prophetic insights into the Jewish people’s past, present, and future. Verses that seem merely poetic often convey deep concepts. One verse uses the word ברק to describe Hashem’s “blade”. Some2 explain it to connote “flashing”, but it literally means a bolt of lightning. Consequently, the Sages understand[4] the verse homiletically to be teaching us a unique aspect of Hashem’s power. Normally, when a person shoots an arrow, they are unable to retrieve it. Not so the Holy One, blessed is He. When He shoots an arrow, He is able to retrieve it. We see this because the verse describes His arrow as being a bolt of lightning, which is in His grasp. Besides the homiletical teaching, the verse also provides a resolution to a seeming contradiction apparent in one of the Sages’ opinions.

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Yom Kippur 5779

Knocking on the wrong door[1]

הפותח שער לדופקי בתשובה
He opens a gate for those who knock in repentance[2]

The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season is all about self-improvement. Realigning ourselves in our service of Hashem, fixing our priorities, and righting past wrongs. The goal is to do teshuva, normally translated as repentance. More accurately, it means to return. This time of year is reserved for returning to our Creator[3], and planning to do better this year. One of the prayers that are said is: “[Hashem] opens a gate for those who knock in repentance”. The implication is that the gates in Heaven are closed, until we knock. We simply have to turn to Hashem, ask for forgiveness, and he’ll accept it. He’ll open the gates of repentance in Heaven for us. The problem is, this contradicts an idea that is taught by our Sages[4]. Prayer is compared to a mikveh, whereas repentance is compared to a river. A mikveh is sometimes open, sometimes closed. So too the gates of prayer are sometimes open, sometimes close. Not every time is an equal opportunity for prayer. However, unlike a mikveh, a river is never closed. So too the gates of repentance are never closed. Teshuva is always accepted. Why then is this prayer indicating that the gates of repentance need to be opened?

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Rosh Hashanah 5779

Will you be judged like sheep, steps, or soldiers?[1]

ונתנה תקף קדשת היום כי הוא נורא ואים וכו’ וכל באי עולם יעברון לפניך כבני מרון
Unesaneh Sokef, let us relate the might of the holiness of this day, as it is astonishing and powerful…all of the word’s inhabitants will pass before You like benei maron[2]

Our Sages teach us[3] that on Rosh Hashanah, every individual on Earth passes before Hashem for judgement, like benei maron. What does benei maron mean? The gemarra provides[4] three explanations: like a flock of sheep[5], like the steps of the House of Maron, or like the soldiers of King David. A flock a sheep refers to when a shepherd wants to count his sheep, he counts them one-by-one as they pass through a narrow entrance[6]. The steps of the House of Maron was a narrow path that not even two people could walk up side-by-side[7]. The soldiers of King David’s army would be counted one-by-one as they went out to wage war[8]. These three explanations seem to all be saying the same thing: Hashem judges every individual on Rosh Hashanah one after the other. There are two obvious questions on this teaching: Why does there need to be a parable of benei maron? Just teach simply that Hashem judges each individual one-by-one. Further, why is this even so? Surely, it’s not beyond Hashem’s capabilities to judge every individual simultaneously. Why indeed is it done one after the other?

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