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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Rosh Hashana & Nitzavim

 

How are we to approach Hashem on Rosh Hashana? Rosh Hashana is a time when most Jews go to Shul.
Something drives us at this time to connect to our heritage and to be part of the annual event known as the High Holidays. What is this drive and why is it so important? The truth is that how meaningful Rosh Hashana is to us really depends on the meaning we bring to it. For some it is a social event that brings everyone together once a year. For others it is a time to remember our past and recharge our Judaism.


For some it is a time to pray and ask Hashem for blessings for the New Year on this “Day of Judgment.” Ido believe that underlying all of the explanations we may give for why we show up is the essential soul in each of us that never gives up and is always, no matter how we live our lives, bound up with it’s
Divine source. On the day of Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of humanity, Hashem renews His creation of the universe, as we say in the liturgy “this day is the beginning of Your work,” and there is a special holiness permeating the atmosphere. Even if we don’t feel it in our minds or heart, our
soul feels it, drives us to do something about it and schlepps us to show up.

 

Once in Shul, or for that matter for someone who can’t make it to Shul but wants to observe this great day, how do we connect? I think that most people feel that they are less knowledgeable than others and less worthy to truly approach Hashem. We look at the book and read the prayers, but do we feel that we really understand the meaning behind them? There are great scholars who know what the prayers really mean, what the mystical meaning is behind the words, but me? What do I understand? Without any real knowledge, it’s just rote, so I might as well just give up on any real connection with
Hashem and just go through the motions.

 

I have two answers to this problem. First, while the prayers are really very important and do, indeed, carry many mystical meaning to help us bring blessings on ourselves, our families and the world, the most important Mitzvah of the day is to hear the Shofar blasts. So if you focus on that part, you are getting the most out of the day. What exactly is the meaning of the Shofar and why is it so important? You can find some answers here. But the bottom line is that hearing the Shofar is key.

 

How about if you don’t get the meaning of any of this and feel somehow left out of the mystical experiences? Here is a story from the book Sipurei Chassidim that I think addresses this point well. The blowing of the Shofar has many deep mystical explanations, and is central to the entire Rosh Hashana
service, so the person who blows the Shofar for the whole community should really try to brush up on his knowledge to deeply understand the significance of what he is doing. In the synagogues of great mystics, the person chosen to blow the Shofar would be one of the greatest among them. In Chabad,
the Rebbes themselves would blow the Shofar. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, who can best be described as one of the greatest giants of all time in Torah, holiness and humanity, approached one of his greatest Chassidim (close followers) by the name of Reb Zev Kitzes
some time before Rosh Hashana and appointed him to blow the Shofar. The Baal Shem Tov told him to study the Kabbalistic meanings of the Shofar blowing, and we can only imagine the spiritual fervor with which Reb Zev approached this holy task. He spent many days learning the deep secrets of this Mitzvah,
and took notes on the main points, for him to refer to while he was blowing. He put these notes in his pocket in the morning of Rosh Hashana in order to have them with him at the right time. When the 
 time came to blow the Shofar, Reb Zev realized that the paper was missing. He was crushed. The holy Rebbe had entrusted him with such a great responsibility and now he would let him down. He tried to think of the mystical teachings that he had learned, but he was so distraught that he couldn’t think of anything and instead just focused on following the Halacha (Jewish law) and getting the sounds out in
the proper form. He was devastated and spent the rest of the service sobbing with his tallit over his head. At the conclusion of the services, the Baal Shen Tov approached him and said: “Gut Yom Tov (happy holiday), Reb Zev! That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we heard today!”

 

Reb Zev didn’t understand. The Baal Shem Tov explained (from Chabad.org): “In the king’s palace there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a
master key that opens all the doors. The kavanot (mystical meditations) are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one keythat unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key
is a broken heart.”

 

On Rosh Hashana we say: Avinu Malkeinu,” our father our king. Hashem is foremost our loving father. Each of us can approach Hashem on this awesome and auspicious day, with or without knowledge, with or without deep meditations. Hashem is available to us with deep and abiding love, and is waiting to
shower us with blessings for the New Year. May it be a sweet and successful one for all of us.

Ki Tavo

 

There is a Mitzvah called “Vidui Maaser” – the confession of the tithes.  What does that mean?  There are several tithe requirements for any farmer in the Land of Israel.  Nowadays that we don’t not have the Holy Temple, the requirements are somewhat different than what I will describe). When the produce was harvested, it was allocated three different ways:

2% for Kohanim called Terumah

10% for the Levites called Maaser

10% was allocated separately

 

This last tithe was not handled the same way every year.  There was a seven-year cycle.  On the first and second years, the second tenth was called Maaser Sheni, and taken to Jerusalem and eaten there by the owner and anyone else he chose to share it with.  The third year this tithe was distributed to the poor.  This three-year cycle was repeated in years four to six.  In year seven there were no tithes, since that is the Sabbatical year and all produce in Israel was considered community property.

 

The Torah tells us in this week’s Parsha that by Pesach of the fourth and seventh years, all tithes had to be distributed and removed from the house.  (I guess procrastination is an ancient human trait.)  Then each farmer would come to the Temple and make his “Confession,” the words of which are written explicitly in the Torah.  Let’s take a look at what this confession was (Devarim 26) .

 

“12. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities.  13. Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, "I have removed the holy [portion] from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten [them].  14. I did not eat any of it [second tithe] while in my mourning, nor did I consume any of it while unclean; neither did I use any of it for the dead. I obeyed the Lord, my God; I did according to all that You commanded me.  15. Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey.”

 

This is a confession?  Imagine if a man turns to his wife on their 40th anniversary and tells her he has a confession to make.  She listens with trepidation, what is the terrible thing she knew nothing about?  He then tells her:  I have been a faithful husband and father.  I have always fulfilled all my promises to you.  I have never strayed from my love for you and have led an exemplary life.  How would she respond?  That is wonderful, but how is that a confession?

 

The following answer is based on a beautiful talk by Rabbi Yosef Jacobson.  In order to truly confess, a person has to know that they are intrinsically good and recognize their strengths.  Someone who identifies as a bad person cannot confess.  Imagine if you are wearing a suit covered in stains, would you care if you get another stain?  If, on the other hand, your suit is clean, you will take care not to get any stains on it and immediately remove any that do come.  If a person considers themselves basically no good, they will give up on trying to do what is right and not be concerned about another sin or another negative act.  In addition, a person who feels negative about themselves cannot admit to doing wrong, and will often find excuses for their wrongdoing.  Another problem is that they feel that they have no control over themselves, so they cannot resolve to change, a critical component of confession. 

 

The Torah is telling us that a true confession can only come from someone who recognizes their qualities that they are essentially a good person with the ability to stand up and proclaim the good they have done. That person will then be able to positively and purposefully fix the problems, freely confess their sins and work to repair the damage and erase the stains.  That’s why this statement of compliance with Torah and giving all the tithes to the poor is called a confession.  Three times in seven years, every landowner had to be able to stand up and say, “I am someone who wants to follow the Torah and fulfil my mission on earth, and if I don’t, it doesn’t mean I am a bad person, it just means I need to face my faults and repair them.”

 

 This is not just hyperbole.  This is the path to teshuva that is effective and true.  Don’t think of yourself as not good enough or not righteous enough to be able to rise to great spiritual heights.  Your soul yearns for it, and your true self really wants it.  It is only our negative self-definition that holds us back.

 

May you be inscribed and sealed for a sweet New Year, you deserve it.

Ki Teitzei

 

There is a Talmudic statement by Rabbi Yaakov (Kiddushin 39b) that there is no reward for Mitzvot in this world. This is a problematic statement in light of the many rewards promised in the Torah for Mitzvot, including rain, health, peace and many others. A classic example of a Mitzvah with a reward is in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 22:6-7) “If you happen upon a bird’s nest on the way… do not take the mother with the offspring. Send away the mother and [then] take the offspring, in order that it will be good for you and you will have long days.” Sounds like a clear reward in this world. Another Mitzvah that promises long life and goodness is the Mitzvah of honoring our parents. So how does that match with Rabbi Yaakov’s teaching? The Talmud clarifies that the reward for long life and goodness is actually a reward in the world to come, the world of goodness and the world of eternity. 

 

Rabbi Yaakov’s grandfather was a great Torah scholar and later became an apostate (denier of G-d). He is known in the Talmud as “Acher” or the “other one”, so as not to mention his name. One day, he witnessed a father telling his son to climb up a tree where there was a bird’s nest, chase away the mother bird and take the chicks (or eggs). The son did so and fell off the tree and died. Acher was shocked. This young man observed the two Mitzvot for which the Torah promises long life as their reward, and he died while observing them. With that, he threw away all Torah observance and faith in Hashem. The Talmud says: “If only Acher knew the interpretation that his grandson gave to this passage, he would not have become an apostate.” Here we have another example of how reading the written Torah without the Oral Torah’s explanation simply does not give us an accurate interpretation. 

 

Nevertheless, this question is still uncomfortable. The Torah seems to clearly state, in several places, that there are physical rewards for the Mitzvot, so why should we not interpret it simply as physical reward? And if in fact some of those rewards are to be taken literally, why did it not work in the bird’s nest case? The answer can be found based on the Rambam’s response to the seeming contradiction about physical reward. He says that the true reward for our Mitzvot is in the world to come. All the promises that the Torah gives of physical blessings in this world are not really reward, but facilitation to do the Mitzvot. It is necessary to have good health and income in order to be able to live a meaningful life and observe the Mitzvot properly. There is a saying that it is expensive to be observant. Think about the higher price of kosher food, the purchase of Tefillin, Mezuzot, holy books, Tzitzit, Etrog (you can order yours here), tuition in a Jewish school, at least ten percent of our income to Tzedakah, inviting guests to our table, taking time off work for prayers and Torah study and to visit the sick and comfort the bereaved, not working on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, and so much more. How are we going to manage all that? This is what the Torah tells us -  Hashem will give if we choose a path of Torah observance. If we dedicate ourselves to following the Torah, we will be rewarded with all we need to fulfill our commitment. But none of that detracts from the true reward that we get in the World to Come.

 

I must note that the Torah teaches us to observe the Mitzvot not for the reward, even the reward in the World to Come. We should observe the Torah because that is our mission in this world, and the ultimate connection with Hashem comes from the observance of practical Mitzvot. Nevertheless we can be assured of the reward to come for our soul in the spiritual world after our lifetime on earth.

 

With this in mind, we can now understand why the death of the young man while fulfilling the Mitzvot of honoring his father and sending away the mother bird is not a contradiction to the reward promised in the Torah. Hashem determines the length of each person’s life, based on the mission each of us has. We are all given just as much time as we need to fulfill our unique mission. This man’s time had come to die, for reasons known only to his Creator. His last act was in observance of two great Mitzvot. The idea of reward in this world, the purpose of which is to facilitate our observance of Torah while we are alive, was not relevant in that case.

 

As we approach the New Year, may we all be blessed with life and health and abundance, and may we all commit to use these blessings to further our mission and make the world a better place – a home for Hashem. 

Shoftim

 

“Oh, that’s just a Rabbinic law!”  I hear that often.  There are those who do not choose to follow the Torah laws in their day to day life.  That is a choice that each person has to make, and the Torah exhorts us to “choose life.”  If someone does choose to follow the Torah, there is a lot of learning that is required to understand how to observe the Mitzvot that permeate every aspect of our lives.  Of course if a person chooses to begin observing Mitzvot that he or she has not been doing in the past, you can’t suddenly jump on a bandwagon and do it all.  There is a process of gradually increasing our observance, recognizing that all the Mitzvot are equally important while at the same time growing in our observance in a sustainable manner, adding one Mitzvah, then another, etc.  This is all good and worthy.  There is, however, another approach that it prevalent, that the Biblical Mitzvot are important, and the Rabbinic Mitzvot, or the Rabbinic interpretations, are not that important or don’t necessarily apply.  (How much more so the customs that many may think of as optional.)  This is not the case, as I will discuss.  They are all equally important.

 

One of the reasons that people consider the Rabbinic laws as less important is based on the fact that when there is a doubt in an obligation, halacha says that if it is a Biblical requirement we are strict, but we are lenient if it is a rabbinic requirement.  Why is this so, if they are both equally important, why the difference if there is a doubt?

 

There are a few problems with the approach that Rabbinic laws are less important.  First of all, how are we able to properly understand a Biblical Mitzvah?  Reading the written Torah, many of the verses are obscure and very hard to understand, intentionally so because it is all written in code.  Leaving the interpretation to each person’s own ideas would result in so many different interpretations that you wouldn’t recognize them as being one Torah, and that is in fact what has happened over the generations.  The Torah is a “user’s manual” that Hashem gave us for the world, a way of life for the people, and it seems strange that He would set it up so that there are hundreds of ways to interpret it.  How can you have a homogeneous society that way?  Without the explanations of the Oral Torah, we simply do not know what the laws and instructions are.  An example of that is the prohibition of cooking (or eating) meat with a substance that is written with three Hebrew letters – chet, lamed and beit.  What is that substance?  Everyone knows it is milk, but that is only because the Oral Torah tells us that the vowels are kamatz and kamatz, therefore spelling the word “chalav” which means milk.  However, without the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll, that word can be reads “chelev” – fat.  So the prohibition that we all know as not mixing meat and milk, without the oral tradition, could very well be read as a prohibition against mixing meat and fat.  There goes barbecue, burgers, cholent, brisket and just about any other meat dish.  This is only one example of thousands where we clearly need the Oral Torah to tell us the basic meaning of the Biblical words.

 

In addition to the interpretation of the Biblical laws and instructions, there is another area of Oral Torah known as Rabbinic law. These are laws and instructions that were created by the sages through the ages in order to protect the Biblical law. These are also called fences around the Torah. An example
would be the prohibition of eating meat and milk when they are not cooked together, or eating chicken with milk, both of which are not included in the Biblical prohibition of cooking meat from a milk producing animal with milk, or eating meat and milk that were cooked together. One might think that
these laws carry less weight than Biblical laws, especially in light of the above-mentioned difference in the way we handle a doubt in each of these cases. However, that is not the case. The Torah says in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 17:19-20): You shall do according to the word they (the Sanhedrin – Supreme
Court) tell you, from the place the Lord will choose (the Temple in Jerusalem), and you shall observe to 
 do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or
left. So there are actually two Biblical commandments, one positive (You shall do according to the word they tell you) and one negative (you shall not divert from the word they tell you), that require us Biblically to follow Rabbinic law. In that case, following rabbinic law is a Biblical requirement and carries
the full power of Biblical law.

 

There is, however, a potential problem.  Another Biblical law states that we may neither add nor subtract from the laws.  So how can we add Rabbinic laws?  Rambam explains this as follows:  We can never say that there is another Biblical law in addition to the 613 that Moshe taught us.  So if someone said that there is a 614th Mitzvah not to eat chicken with milk, that would be a violation of the prohibition to add to the Torah.  However, it is perfectly acceptable, and in fact necessary, for the Sages to add fences and protections to the Biblical law by enacting legislation and adding prohibitions.  And the observance of these laws is required, as above-mentioned, by the written Torah.  This must be presented, though, as Rabbinic protective law and not as an additional biblical law.  This is one of the reasons that we are more lenient with Rabbinic law than we are with Biblical law when there is a doubt.  Not because it is less important, but in order to show a differentiation between the two, so that we should not mistake rabbinic law for Biblical law. 

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