Friday, September 25, 2015

Tune In to The Song of the Torah

Parshat Haazinu is referred to as a “Shira”, a song.  We see the Torah refers to itself as a shira as well. Why is Torah called “Shirah”?

Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog, first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, once gave the following explanation: With virtually all fields of study in the world, one uninitiated in that discipline gets no pleasure from hearing a theory or an insight concerning that field of study. For example -- physics. If one tells a physicist a novel insight in his field of expertise, he will get great pleasure from it. However, if one shares this same insight with someone who has never studied and has never been interested in physics, he will be totally unmoved by it. The same applies to most other disciplines of study.

However, this is not the case with music. When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is played -- regardless of whether one is a concert master or a plain simple person – one will enjoy what s/he hears. Music is something that everyone can enjoy on their own level. Everyone can have a relationship with music, whether it’s sophisticated or less so.

That's why Torah is called "Shirah". One can be a great Torah scholar and learn The Genesis story and see great wisdom therein. And one can be a five year old child, just beginning to read, and also gain something from Breishit. Every person, on their own level, can have a connection and appreciation for Torah. In this way Torah is like song.

Towards the end of last week’s Parsha, Hashem tells Moshe:
And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths,.

יטוְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם

When we want our children to eat, we can make the food, plate it and even put the food into their mouth. But in the end it is up to them to chew the food and digest it. Torah can be placed into our mouths, but ultimately it is up to us to swallow (absorb and internalize) its lessons.

Our shul will be offering a number of learning opportunities over Sukkot and in the New Year. I urge you to take advantage of these opportunities (and speak to me if there is something you’d be interested in that you don’t see on the schedule.) 

May the song of Torah reverberate in our lives, well after Simchat Torah and all year long.

Friday, September 18, 2015

the foreign gods of today

Today the notion of idolatry is very foreign to us. Organized religion in many parts of society is viewed with scorn, and pagan worship would be viewed today as antiquated, if not worse. Yet the Torah repeats over and over the prohibition of Avodah Zarah, foreign worship, and warns the Jewish People against engaging in such practices. For instance in Parshat Vayelech we read:

When I bring them to the land which I have sworn to their forefathers [to give them], a land flowing with milk and honey, they will eat and be satisfied, and live on the fat [of the land]. Then, they will turn to other deities and serve them, provoking Me and violating My covenant.

כ כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה | אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי:

It is clear that back in the day, paganism was popular in the broader culture and a tremendous challenge for the Jewish People to avoid in their own spiritual yearnings.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin (64) notes that foreign worship was such a great challenge to the future of the Jewish People, that the Men of the Great Assembly prayed that the inclination towards such activity be removed from among the Jewish People- and their prayers were answered! This leaves us with the question: Do the verses, such as the one quoted above, that refer to foreign worship continue to have relevance today? And if so, how are we to understand it’s lessons for 21st century Jews?

I came across a beautiful idea, quoted in the name of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Reb Shlomo suggested that foreign gods need not refer to idols or pagan practice. It could refer to Hashem, our one and only true God, when treated by us as “foreign”. If we view God as being detached from our lives, as a Being that does not care about what we do or what happens to us, then we have turned our relationship with Hashem into a foreign form of worship.

This idea is especially meaningful for me during this time of year. The reason why we take the Yomim Noraim so seriously is because Hashem is interested in us, cares for us and wants what’s best for us. Hashem is not merely our acquaintance, He’s our parent. He knows everything about us and cares what happens to us. This should not make us feel paranoid, but rather loved and inspired to live up to that degree of earned Divine love.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What's Your Religion Worth To You?

In Parshat Nitzavim Moshe encourages the Jewish People to engage in “the mitzvah.” Some suggest that it refers to the entire Torah. Others suggest that Moshe refers to the mitzvah of teshuva, repentance.

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away.

יאכִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא:
12It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יבלֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
13Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יגוְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:

The implication is that although the mitzvah may seem daunting, it is in fact available and accessible to all to embrace.
On this notion, Rashi makes an interesting comment:

It is not in heaven: for if it were in heaven, you would have to climb up after it [in order] to learn it. - [Eruvin 55a]

לא בשמים היא: שאלו היתה בשמים היית צריך לעלות אחריה וללומדה:

Whereas the text assures us of the Torah’s accessibility, the Talmud interjects how Torah/ Teshuva is worth the sacrifice, if/when need be.

I wonder why the Talmud adds this perspective. Is it to give strength and encouragement to Jews who lived through difficult times, oppression, poverty, Anti-Semitism?  Or is it speaking to a time when people live in relative ease and comfort. Might the Talmud be challenging such people to think about what the Torah is really worth and what they should be willing to do in order to follow it.
There’s a saying “if you have nothing worth dying for, then you have nothing worth living for either.”

I’m not suggesting that we rue the fact that God has blessed American Jewry with safety and freedom to practice our religion. I’m not suggesting that religious practice or faith needs to be challenging in order to be meaningful. I am just pointing out that our religious freedoms in America are unprecedented in Jewish history- as are our rates of intermarriage and “dropping out” of Judaism.
Are people opting out because they don’t view Judaism as demanding enough? Would we have more passionate Jews if we required them to go to the heavens to retrieve their heritage?

I am reminded of an idea from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his Book Future Tense. In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most observed. In fact, surveys come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

Even those who remain within the fold of Jewish tradition, especially our youth, may not be sure whether Torah is worth storming the heavens in order to retrieve. And if that’s the case, and we don’t have anything worth sacrificing for, do we know what we are living for? The upcoming High Holidays is the right time to think about this.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Curses: Unpleasant, but also Empowering

On a regular Shabbat, there is a difference of opinion as to which aliyah is the most honorable: shlishi or shishi. This week, there’s no debate. Everyone would rather have shlishi. Shishi consists of the Tochecha, a set of curses directed at the Jewish People individually by Moshe for failure to live up to their potential and the expectations of the Torah. Noone wants to get an aliyah that is full of curses, especially when those curses are written in the singular as they are in Ki Tavo. So who should get the Aliyah?

The story is told about the members of a certain Shul who were all terrified of being called up for the Aliya of the Tochacha.  They called a special Board Meeting, and decided to hire someone to take the aliyah of the Tochecha.  It wasn’t easy, but finally a willing candidate was found and hired.
Parshat Ki Tavo arrived and the Gabbai looked around for the contracted individual to call him for shishi.  But, he was nowhere to be found in the Shul. “Perhaps he’s running late,” suggested one of the Ba’alei Batim, “let’s wait a few minutes for him.” They sat for about a quarter of an hour, getting more and more impatient by the minute.  After all, this was not proper.  An agreement had been made.  Money had been paid.  Where was he?

 Right then, the contracted man entered the Shul.  The Board members ran to him and demanded to know his reason for being late. The individual calmly turned to the angry group, and replied, “I was davening in the shul down the block.  Do you really think that a person can make a living from only one Tochacha?”

This story may be a joke, but the Maharil, in his classic book of Ashkenzaic customs (Hilchot Kriat Hatorah) writes that in Magence the custom was to stipulate with the Shamash that part of his job (what he was getting paid to do) was to take the Tochacha aliyah when no one else wanted it. 

In other communities, there was a serious concern that the Gabbai might call a person up for the sixth aliyah today, and that person due to his fear of the curses, would just not come forward. This led to the ruling of Rabbi Moshe Isserliss that the aliyah be given to “anyone that is willing.” Understood to mean either that the Gabbais have to find someone ahead of time willing to take this aliyah, or that the Gabbai is supposed to simply call out “Ya’amod mi sheyirtza” for today’s sixth aliyah.

Rav Chayim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, relates in his Sefer Ha-chayim that this “fear” of the tokhecha in Parashat Ki-Tavo led to some serious disruptions and lack of honor for the Torah.  He describes that in some synagogues, the Torah would remain open, in the middle of the reading, for several hours, as no congregants were willing to come and recite the berakhot over this aliya.  The Biur Halacha records that there were synagogues in which they actually cancelled Torah reading on the Shabbatot during which the curses should have been read (ie Bechukotai and Ki Tavo).

It is understandable why the Tochecha (selection of curses) is not the most popular Aliya. It contains a number of scary predictions of what can occur to the Jewish People. There are some fundamental messages that emerge from the tochecha:

1      One of the greatest curses is to fear the unknown:
7In the morning, you will say, "If only it were evening! " and in the evening, you will say, "If only it were morning!" because of the fear in your heart which you will experience and because of the sights that you will behold.

סזבַּבֹּקֶר תֹּאמַר מִי יִתֵּן עֶרֶב וּבָעֶרֶב תֹּאמַר מִי יִתֵּן בֹּקֶר מִפַּחַד לְבָבְךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּפְחָד וּמִמַּרְאֵה עֵינֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶה:

2 Curses come from the absence of joy in our lives, not the absence of material wealth:
because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.

מזתַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל

And happiness is a choice. Just ask students of Positive Psychology.

It emerges that many of the curses are up to us to avoid: by constantly learning and thinking we can avoid the unknown. My choosing to live life through a prism of happiness we can avoid those curses that emerge from the absence of joy.

The depiction of the curses is unpleasant. But upon further consideration I found their underlying message to be empowering. This enhances my understanding of the calendric insistence to read this portion before Rosh Hashanah. We want to start the New Year past the curses. And we also want to enter the New Year empowered, knowing that avoiding many of the curses is up to us.