Yom Kippur 5780

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The most powerful day[1]

כי-ביום הזה יכפר עליכם לטהר אתכם מכל חטאתיכם לפני יקוק תטהרו
For on this day [of Yom Kippur] it shall be atoned for you, to purify you, from all of your sins; purify yourselves before Hashem![2]

Yom Kippur is one of the most intense days of the year. We spend the entire day involved in prayers and supplications. We fast, and refrain from physical pleasures. We (hopefully) perform teshuvah, repentance with sincerity and a broken heart. With this, we hope to repair the damage we inflicted to our relationship with our Creator. After all of this, a person may wonder: How can I know that my repentance was accepted?

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Rosh Hashanah 5780

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Tipping the scales[1]

דרשו יקוק בהמצאו קראוהו בהיותו קרוב
Seek out Hashem when He is to be found; call out to Him when He is close[2]

Every person has a mix of merits and transgressions. We are taught that someone who has more merits than transgressions is considered a tzaddik, a righteous person. Someone who has more transgressions than merits is considered a rasha, a wicked person. Someone who is exactly 50-50 is considered a beinoni, someone in the middle[3]. On Rosh Hashanah, everyone’s status is determined. Someone who is ruled as a tzaddik is sealed for life. Someone who is ruled as a rasha is sealed for death. Someone who is a beinoni has their judgement stalled until Yom Kippur. If they repent, then they will be sealed for life. If not, they will be sealed for death[4].

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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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Shoftim 5778

Elul: the month of refuge[1]

ואשר לא צדה והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה
If he didn’t plan to kill [his victim], but G-d caused it to happen, then I will provide for you a place for you [the killer] to find refuge[2]

We have now begun the period leading up to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This period is the entire month of Elul. There are many allusions to Elul and its significance throughout Tanach. One famous example is the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי, I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me[3]. In Hebrew, the first letters spell the month of Elul. Another allusion is ומל יקוק אלקיך את לבבך ואת לבב זרעך, Hashem will remove the barrier in your heart and the heart of your offspring[4]. The first letters here as well spell Elul[5]. These allusions aren’t just cute discoveries. We can learn about different aspects of the month of Elul from the verses which allude to it. We see from the first allusion that during Elul there is a special relationship and closeness between us and Hashem. This comes from our desire to repent from our wrongdoings, and Hashem’s willingness to forgive us[6]. As well, during Elul any barriers between our innate desire to do good and our willingness to carry it out are weakened.

There’s an allusion to Elul from a topic that appears in this week’s parsha. The parsha discusses the dangers that face someone who accidentally killed another person[7]. The Torah is aware that the deceased’s relatives may take the law into their own hands, and murder the accidental killer. To protect this individual, the Torah mandates the establishment of six cities of refuge for them to flee. There, the deceased’s relatives can’t kill him. This mitzvah appears in different places throughout the Torah. In one instance[8], the Torah provides another allusion to the month of Elul. והאלקים אנה לידו ושמתי לך מקום אשר ינוס שמה. If G-d caused [the mishap] to happen, i.e. the killing was unintentional, then G-d provides a place for the killer to flee. The first letters of the words “caused it to happen”, and “I will provide for you”, spell Elul[9]. What can we learn about Elul from this seemingly random allusion?

The cities of refuge weren’t just average cities. It was where the Leviim lived. The entire city was full of scholars with outstanding character traits. One of the goals with sending the accidental killer to these cities was to also improve their behavior. Although the killing was an accident, there must be some reason this mishap happened to them[10]. Maybe this was a wakeup call to get them to become a better person. Perhaps they weren’t as careful as they could have been. There’s always room to improve. Being surrounded by these outstanding individuals was a guaranteed way to leave a lasting impression on them. However, this was only while the accidental killer remained in the city. If he left even momentarily, not only was he putting his life in danger, but he was weakening the influence others could have on them. This is why the Torah is stringent that they must stay in the city of refuge[11]. The exact same is with the month of Elul. It’s a month of refuge from all the things in our life which distract us from our purpose. It’s a chance to improve as individuals; to get a new lease on life. The lessons gained from Elul can be brought with us to the rest of the year. However, this is only accomplished by those who are fully in Elul. If someone is only haphazardly committed to improve, it’s like momentarily leaving the city of refuge. There won’t be lasting success.

However, this lesson is only learned from the second half of the allusion, which speaks about G-d giving us a city of refuge. The first half of the allusion describes that the killing was unintentional. It’s as if G-d caused it to happen. What does this teach us about Elul? One explanation is[12] that a person might think that this month is all a farce. Throughout the year a person naturally commits errors in judgement; they have slipups in their spirituality. Now, during this month of Elul, they’re going to be on their best behavior. Who are they fooling? This isn’t the real them…These are the thoughts that could go through someone’s mind. However, this allusion is teaching us that it’s the exact opposite: during this month, we are our real selves. The slipups throughout the year, weren’t really us. No Jew intrinsically wants to sin[13]. Looking back on our failures, we think: “How could I have done that? That wasn’t me”. This is just like the accidental killer of the Torah. His mishap is looked at as not his fault. It’s as if someone else caused it. We need to look at Elul as the opportunity to be our real selves. Hopefully then, we will have a better year than the previous.

Good Shabbos

 

[1] Based on a shiur given by Rabbi Reznick to parshas Shoftim in 5774

[2] Exodus 21:13, translation loosely based on The Living Torah ad. loc. For a different piece on this particular verse, see http://parshaponders.com/mishpatim-shekalim-5778

[3] Song of Songs 6:3. The last letters also have the numerical value of forty, corresponding to the forty days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur

[4] Deuteronomy 30:6

[5] Mishnah Berurah 581:1. He presumably got this from the Abudraham Chapter 25 (Tefillas Rosh Hashanah), who quotes these allusions from the “Darshanim”. I only found earlier sources regarding the first allusion of אני לדודי ודודי לי, which are Rabbi Yehoshua ibn Shuaib at the end of parshas Shoftim, quoting a Midrash, and Derashos Maharach Ohr Zaruah § 32 (parshas Ha’azinu)

[6] Mishnah Berurah loc. cit. I saw this explanation in the Bach ad. loc. § 2, although it could come from an earlier source

[7] Deuteronomy 19:1-10

[8] Exodus loc. cit.

[9] Pri Etz Chaim Sha’ar Rosh Hashanah § 1, brought by the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:1. The latter also brings the previous two allusions, and provides a third one regarding sending gifts to friends (Esther 9:22).  He says the latter three allusions correspond to the three ways to annul a bad decree: (1) teshuvah / repentance (ומל יקוק), (2) tefillah / prayer (אני לדודי), and (3) tzedakah (gifts to friends). See the Unesaneh Sokef prayer in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor and Rosh Hashanah 16b

[10] See Rashi to Exodus loc. cit.

[11] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation of the cities of refuge from the Avnei Nezer

[12] Rabbi Reznick quoted this explanation from Rav Tzvi Mayer Zilberberg

[13] See Mishneh Torah Hilchos Gerushin 2:20

Tazria-Metzora 5778

Making the humble proud[1]

וצוה הכהן ולקח למטהר שתי-צפרים חיות טהורות ועץ ארז ושני תולעת ואזב
The Kohen shall command [as follows]: he should take for the one seeking purification two live, kosher birds, a rod[2] from a cedar tree, a thread of crimson wool, and hyssop[3]

This week’s double parsha deals mostly with the laws of tzara’as, most commonly translated as leprosy. While it may be a whitish skin condition, in reality it’s a totally unrelated spiritual malady[4] with physical symptoms. Chazal tell us[5] that someone who contracts tzara’as, known as a Metzora[6], usually committed a certain sin[7]. One example is that of haughtiness. As a result of his sin, he is infected with a disturbing skin condition, and has to have his status established by a Kohen. If the Kohen determines he is spiritually impure, then he is. The opposite is also true. The Torah describes how a Metzora can purify himself once declared impure. It’s an entire ritual that takes place in the Temple, and includes bringing certain offerings. Part of the offering includes a rod from a cedar tree. What is the significance of including this?

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Noach 5778

Issues of faith[1]

ויאמר יקוק לנח בא-אתה וכל-ביתך אל-התבה כי-אתך ראיתי צדיק לפני בדור הזה: ויעש נח ככל אשר-צוהו יקוק: ויבא נח ובניו ואשתו ונשי-בניו אתו אל-התבה מפני מי המבול
Hashem said to Noach: “Come to the ark, you and your household, because I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation”. Noach did according to all that he was commanded by Hashem. And Noach went, along with his sons, his wife, and his son’s wives, into the ark, due to[2] the flood[3]

Noach was told by Hashem to build an ark for himself and his family. That generation had proven itself to be entirely wicked, so Hashem was going to bring a flood to destroy the world. Noach and his family were the ones chosen to rebuild civilization. When the time finally came to enter the ark, Hashem commanded Noach to do so. The verse then testifies that Noach did all that Hashem had commanded him. Rashi explains[4] that this refers to his coming to the ark. The Torah then says that Noach and his family entered the ark because of the flood. Rashi points out[5] that this teaches us that Noach was of little faith. He believed and he didn’t believe that the flood would occur. He only brought his family into the Ark when the waters forced them inside. How can this be reconciled with the earlier verse, which praised Noach for following Hashem’s command to enter the ark[6]?

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Yom Kippur 5778

The power of tzedakah[1]

ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה
Repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can remove the evil of the decree[2]

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur share the famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer. It is one of the most moving and powerful prayers in the High Holiday liturgy. What makes it so memorable is not only the chilling tune, but the intense words themselves. It reminds us that during these days we are like sheep being assessed by their shepherd[3]. On Rosh Hashanah, it is written who will live and who will perish, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What gives the Unesaneh Tokef prayer the power it has undoubtedly comes from its origins. It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz about 1,000 years ago. The Church insisted that he convert to Christianity, and after refusing, they brutally amputated his body. Before he died, he requested to be carried to the Ark during the Rosh Hashanah prayers. He recited the words of Unesaneh Tokef, and died[4].

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Aseres Yemei Teshuvah 5778

Breaking free from inertia[1]

אף מי שאינו נזהר מפת של עכו”ם, בעשרת ימי תשובה צריך לזהר
Even someone who normally eats [kosher] bread baked by a non-Jewish [baker][2], during the ten days of repentance one must be stringent [to only eat bread baked by a Jew][3]

The seven days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, including the holidays themselves, are known as the aseres yemei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. They are days reserved for introspection and correcting past faults[4], with the hopes to better one’s behavior for the upcoming year. There is a halacha, Jewish law, that one should try to take on extra chumros, stringencies, during this time. It’s not meant to be a lifetime commitment; just for these ten days. The paradigm example that is given is that for these ten days one should be careful to only eat bread baked by a Jew.

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Ki Savo 5777

Taking the first step[1]

דרשו יקוק בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב: יעזב רשע דרכו ואיש און מחשבתיו וישב אל-יקוק וירחמהו ואל-אלקינו כי-ירבה לסלוח
Seek out Hashem where he is found, call out to Him when He is close. The wicked one will abandon his ways, the sinful man his thoughts; he will return to Hashem, who will have mercy on him, and to Our G-d, since He is wont to forgive[2]

The Midrash says[3] that once the Jews started to approach the land of Israel, Moshe pleaded with Hashem that he be allowed to join them. He had recently been barred from entering the land[4]. He asked: “Please can I see it”[5]. Hashem responded by asking how could He annul His decree against Moshe and yet maintain Moshe’s earlier decree? When the Jews sinned during the episode of the spies, Hashem was going to annihilate the nation. Moshe said: “Please forgive them”[6]. Hashem fulfilled his decree. By asking to enter the land, Hashem informed Moshe that it was like he wanted to hold on to a rope from both ends. If Hashem’s decree is nullified, Moshe’s decree can’t stand. Once Moshe heard this, he desisted from his prayers. This Midrash on the surface is astounding. How come one decree is dependent on the other? Why does letting Moshe into the land remove their earlier forgiveness?

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Shoftim 5777

The seeds of potential[1]

כפר לעמך ישראל אשר-פדית יקוק ואל-תתן דם נקי בקרב עמך ישראל ונכפר להם הדם
Hashem, grant atonement for your nation Israel which you have redeemed, and don’t let guilt for innocent blood remain among your nation, Israel; and they shall be absolved of punishment[2]

The beginning of parshas Vayeira involves the story of three Angels who came to visit Avraham. Acting as a generous host, Avraham is described as serving their every need. The verses testify[3] that he offered them water, he prepared dishes of cream and milk in addition to a small calf, and he waited on them hand and foot. The gemarra teaches us[4] that for these three acts of chesed, his descendants merited to three acts of chesed from Hashem. While the Jews wandered in the wilderness for forty years, they were given munn, the manna that fell from heaven, the Clouds of Glory which guided the way and protected them from the elements, and the travelling well of water. However, this teaching doesn’t appear to be consistent with another teaching in the gemarra[5], that the Jews received these three gifts due to the merits of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam[6]. How can these two teachings be reconciled?

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