Monday, September 17, 2007

Yonah (Yom Kippur)

Even Wikipedia has a d'var Torah on Yonah (but this is my one)

The Haftorah for Yom Kippur afternoon is the book of Yona. It tells the story of the prophet Yonah who was sent to Ninveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire. He was to tell the people that G-d was displeased with their actions, and the city would be overturned. Yona refuses his mission and attempts to flee from G-d by leaving Israel for Tarshish. He is eventually forced by G-d to accept his task and go to Ninveh. The citizens of Ninveh, led by their king, repent and G-d forgives them. Meanwhile Yona, who has set himself nearby to watch the imminent destruction of the city, complains to G-d that He is not being truthful and just if He forgives the people. G-d uses the kikayon tree to teach Yona that He shows mercy to people because they are dear to Him.
It would seem that the theme of the story is repentance, thus making it appropriate for Yom Kippur. What is not clear though, is whose repentance we should be focusing on. At first glance it would appear that Yona repents and admits that G-d is right, and he is wrong for wanting the destruction of Ninveh. In fact the Midrash records Yona’s repentance before G-d, in which he acknowledges that he has sinned. However the text of the book itself gives us no indication that Yona has learnt his lesson.
Perhaps we are supposed to learn from the repentance of the inhabitants of Ninveh, that they immediately changed their ways. However, there is dispute amongst the commentaries as to whether the repentance of Ninveh was sincere or only the outward appearance of repentance, with no real commitment to change. Also, if that is the punchline, why does the story continue?
Maybe the message that we should learn from the book of Yona is the comparison between the non-Jewish reaction to the warning from G-d, and the Jewish one. For decades before and after this episode, G-d sent prophets to Israel and Jerusalem berating the people for having abandoned the ways of justice and goodness, and threatening them with destruction. However they refused to listen and to change, just as Yona in this story seems impervious to G-d’s lesson. Ninveh, on the other hand, a non-Jewish city, immediately take note of G-d’s displeasure with them and make a change. Even if it is not a complete repentance, at least they heeded the warning that they were given. Therefore it seems apt that their empire was the one to eventually wage war against Israel and take the ten tribes into exile. Those who can repent are the ones who are able to punish those who cannot repent.

Yom Kippur d'var Torah

Teshuva is the main theme of this season. The days from Rosh HaShana until Yom Kippur are known as the “Asseret Yemei HaTeshuva”, “Ten Days of Repentance”, the Intermediate Shabbat is called “Shabbat (Te)Shuva” and the Machzor for Yom Kippur is full of references to Teshuva. What exactly is demanded of us at this time of year, and especially on this day?
We know that during the past year we have not constantly lived up to the standards expected of us by G-d, by our peers, and often even our own standards of right and wrong. Were there no higher power and no absolute values we would have no recourse to forgiveness. If we, or society, set the values by which we should live, then there is no way of undoing any past wrongs. Judaism recognises G-d as the supreme authority of all morality; good and evil are defined as revealed by G-d. Therefore the same Authority that declares something wrong and sinful, can also declare it forgiven. The way to forgiveness is through teshuva.
Teshuva involves change. It means changing our actions, our attitudes and our goals to conform with those set by G-d. However change is very difficult to do. Try folding your arms now. Do you fold right over left or left over right? Now try to do the opposite. It feels awkward and strange. To reverse a simple mannerism is hard, how much more difficult it is to make any lasting change on ourselves through teshuva.
Before it is possible to altar our lives, we must recognise the need for change. The first of the “twelve steps” used in Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.” No matter how obvious it is to others, no amount of persuasion can prevent someone from drinking unless they themselves realise that there is something wrong. As long as they continue to delude themselves that they are functioning normally, they will continue their addictive and destructive behaviour. Only after seeing the need for change is change possible.
Some people think that Judaism should change to encompass our lifestyle. This ingenious approach suggests that our actions are never objectively wrong, therefore it must be our religion of the past several thousand years which is at fault. It is obvious that with this attitude it is not possible to do teshuva or to maximise the potential of Yom Kippur. Following this course leads to “lowest common denominator” Judaism, where any action or attitude can and must be justified in order to prevent any guilt feelings of wrongdoing. Instead of a religion of absolutes, where G-d is the object of worship, rewriting the book to suit our personal habits makes Judaism into a security blanket, where G-d must conform to our own self indulgence. This approach is ultimately doomed to failure. After 2500 years of probing, philosophy has finally come to the conclusion that unless revealed by some higher power, no objective standard of good and evil exists. In this century we have seen the failure and downfall of many societies that were once touted as the new utopia. To continue to try and set our own rules is doomed to failure. The first step that we must all take this Yom Kippur is the resolution that change is not only possible, but necessary.

Yom Kippur summary


The morning Torah reading is the section from Leviticus which describes the service of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) on Yom Kippur. The commands are addressed to Aharon, Moshe's brother, as the first Kohen Gadol. This service of the Kohen Gadol also forms the main text of the Mussaf service. However the Torah lists the various activities thematically, rather than in the chronological order in which they were performed.
After the death of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon is commanded that he may only enter into the Holy of Holies on one day a year, Yom Kippur, and only in a cloud of incense. He must first offer a bull and a ram as sin offerings, then change into special pure white garments and enter the Holy of Holies. Two identical male goats are taken and lots are cast over them. One is to be offered as a sacrifice on the altar, while the other is sent to the wilderness and pushed over a cliff known as Azazel.
After leaving the Holy of Holies, the Kohen Gadol takes the blood of the bull and goat sacrifices and sprinkles them on the outside of the Parochet (the curtain dividing the Holy from the Holy of Holies), thus achieving atonement for the entire nation. The Kohen Gadol confesses the sins of the entire nation before the goat is sent to Azazel. He then enters the Holy of Holies a second time in order to remove the incense pan which he had left there earlier, and changes back into his normal golden vestments.
This is to be an eternal law, enacted each year on the tenth of Tishrei. The Jews are also commanded to fast and afflict themselves on this day.
The Maftir reading is from Numbers, and lists the festival offerings that are to be sacrificed on Yom Kippur.

The afternoon Torah reading lists the forbidden sexual relations. A man may not have relations with his mother or his father’s wife, nor his sister or granddaughter. Nor with his stepsister or aunt, nor daughter-in-law or sister-in-law. He may not marry a mother and daughter or two sisters. A husband and wife must refrain from having relations at the time of menstruation. Adultery, homosexuality and bestiality are forbidden. Because of these sins, the nations who previously lived in Israel were exiled and therefore the Jews must observe them so that they are not similarly exiled.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Parshat Haazinu (Rabbi Sedley)

"The Rock (G-d), His actions are perfect (whole), for all His ways are justice. He is a G-d of faithfulness and without iniquity, He is just and upright" (Deuteronomy 32; 4). This is one of the opening verses of the song of Ha'azinu, Moshe's final words to the Jewish nation. Moshe is about to describe punishments that will befall the nation for their sins, but he first affirms G-d's justice. The concept of G-d's justice is one of the most fundamental ideas in Judaism, and one which seems particularly appropriate at this time of year. On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim G-d's majesty over the world, and acknowledge that He sits in judgement of creation.
The Rambam lists as the tenth 'principle of faith' (at the end of his introduction to Perek Chelek) that one of the fundamentals of belief is that G-d knows all of our actions, and watches over the world. There is nothing that happens in the world that G-d is not aware of. In the eleventh 'principle' Rambam continues that we must believe that G-d rewards every good deed and punishes each transgression. According to the Rambam the greatest possible reward can only be given in the world-to-come, and the greatest punishment is for a soul to be destroyed and be deprived of the world-to-come. However, other commentators also recognise that there is a certain degree of reward and punishment that takes place in this world.
The Talmud (Ta'anit 11a) explains our verse: 'G-d of faithfulness' teaches us that just as G-d punishes the wicked in the world-to-come for even a minor transgression that they have committed, so too He punishes the righteous in this world for any transgression. 'Without iniquity' for just as G-d rewards the righteous in the world-to-come for even the smallest Mitzvah, so He rewards the wicked in this world for any Mitzvah that they have done.
We see from here that G-d does not just 'balance the books', and allow merits to cancel out sins or vice-versa. Rather every single action must be rewarded or punished appropriately. Rashi explains that G-d rewards the wicked in this world in order that they can be removed in the world-to-come, as the verse states (Deuteronomy 7; 10) "G-d repays His enemies in their lifetime to destroy them". Conversely, by punishing the righteous in this world their sins can be erased, and they receive only reward in the world-to-come.
However, according to this G-d's justice seems very unfair. The world-to-come is a place of boundless goodness and delight. Even the smallest reward there is infinite. By contrast, this world is temporary. The greatest pleasure that a person could receive is by definition finite, both in value and duration. The converse is also true for punishment, any punishment in this world is limited, and any punishment in the world-to-come is forever. The Mishna (Avos 4; 22) states, "Better is one hour of enjoyment in the world-to-come than the whole of the life in this world". How can it be justice for G-d to punish the righteous in this world, and reward them in the world-to-come, yet reward the wicked in this world and punish them in the world-to-come?
The answer is based on the first part of that same Mishna, "Better is one hour spent in repentance and good deeds in this world, than all of the life of the world-to-come." When a person performs a Mitzvah for the right reasons they connect to the infinite spiritual energy which is G-d. Therefore their reward can only be obtained in the world-to-come, which is infinite. Conversely, any sin they perform may be only a temporary lapse of reason, and is only punished in the finite world. However, someone who is 'wicked' may perform many good deeds, but not necessarily because they believe that G-d commanded them. The performance of a Mitzvah 'because it makes sense', or 'because it is a good thing' is by definition only temporary. If a Mitzvah is only done for finite reasons, and not to connect to G-d, then the greatest reward that can be received can only be in this world. An infinite future reward is meaningless to someone who only believes in the reality of the present.
This may seem incomprehensible to us, but the Talmud (ibid.) continues, and explains the end of our verse. "He is just and upright". This teaches us that when a person dies all his deeds come before his soul, and say, 'You did such and such, at this time in this place' and he admits 'Yes'. The soul then agrees to the judgement, and exclaims, 'You have judged me justly'. We are unable to understand how the justice of G-d works from our vantage point in this world, but we know and proclaim that He is just and fair, and that after death we will be able to acknowledge His justice.

Haazinu Summary

Moshe summons the heavens and the earth to stand as eternal witnesses to what will happen if the Jewish People sin and do not obey the Torah. G-d has shown the Children of Israel tremendous kindness in each generation. However prosperity can lead the people to become bloated and corrupt the morals of the people. They will worship empty idols and powerless gods and indulge in all kinds of depravity. G-d will then show His anger by "hiding His face" to let foreign nations subjugate Israel and scatter them across the world. However, when these nations think that it is through their own power that they have dominated Israel, G-d will remind them that they are no more than a tool to execute His will. He will comfort the Jewish People, in the knowledge that neither exile nor suffering can sever the bond between G-d and His people. Eventually, in the final redemption, this closeness will be restored. G-d will then turn His anger against the enemies of Israel, as though they were His enemies, showing no mercy to the tormentors of His people.
Moshe speaks all these words to the Children of Israel. Then G-d commands Moshe to Mount Nevo and be gathered there to his people.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Tosefet Bracha Netzavim

“You are standing here today” (29: 9)
Rashi brings a midrash: Why is this section of “You are standing” immediately following the portion of Ki Tavo? Because when the Israel heard 98 curses their faces turned green, and they said to themselves, ‘who can possibly live up to this?’ Moshe began to calm them down and said, ‘you are standing here today. You have angered G-d many times in the past, yet you still stand before Him’.
It seems to me that this is the basis for the Mishna in Pirkei Avos (1: 7) ‘Don’t despair from the punishment’. In Yalkut Yirmiya (34) this is explained in two different ways. When a person is surrounded by good things, he should not ‘despair’ of the bad things, and think that they can never happen to him. And when things are going badly for him, he should not despair that good things will happen to him in the future. Look also what we wrote about this later (verse 12).
We should point out that the Gemara (Brachot 10a) says in the name of King Chizkiyahu: ‘This is the tradition I have from my father’s house. Even if a sharp sword is placed to your neck, never despair of G-d’s mercy’.
It seems likely that the basis of this tradition are the words of the Torah here, as Rashi explained them.
It is also possible to explain a related concept in the laws of stolen or lost items. If the owner despairs of ever finding the stolen or lost item again, he loses his rights to it (if it is found by someone else in a different place – Bava Kama 115a). It is not explained why the original owner should be punished and lose his possession.
Perhaps this is some kind of ‘penalty’ for the fact that he despaired of ever finding them again, since it is forbidden to despair, even if a sharp sword is held to your neck. This person who despaired of finding it again showed a lack of trust in G-d, and therefore was penalised.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Parshat Vayelech (Rabbi Sedley)


"[Moshe] said to them, 'I am one hundred and twenty years old today, and I am no longer able to go and come...;'" (Deuteronomy 31; 2). Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 13b) to explain Moshe's words: 'Today I have completed my days and years (in fulfilment of the verse (Exodus 23; 26) "I [G-d] will cause you to live out full lives"). On this day I was born, and on this day I will die'. Alternatively 'I am no longer able to come and go in matters of Torah'. This teaches us that the wellsprings of wisdom were closed before him.
The Talmud (Chullin 139b) finds a hint to Moshe's life in the story of Noach, where the verse states (Genesis 6; 3) "G-d said 'My spirit will not continue to judge man forever, since he is nothing but flesh. His days shall be 120 years'". The numerical equivalent of the word "nothing but" is the same as the numerical value of the word Moshe. Therefore, long before Moshe was even conceived it was decreed that he would live to be 120.
Rabbi Yonasan Eibschitz cites an obvious question. If that day was the same date that he was born (and we have a tradition that it was on the 7th of Adar), then that would be his 121st birthday. In order to complete his allotted years exactly he should have died the day before.
The Midrash (Beis Hamidrash a; 122) tells us that Moshe passed away on a Shabbat at Mincha time. However, elsewhere it tells us that on the last day of his life Moshe wrote out thirteen copies of the Torah. Certainly this could not have been on Shabbat, so it seems that the day of his death was on a Friday, before Shabbat. How could there be a disagreement about which day Moshe died on?
We know that the Torah is the source of life, from the verse (Proverbs 3; 18) "It is a tree of life to those that grasp it...". Therefore in certain respects someone who does not learn Torah is removed from life. How much more so would that be true of Moshe whose whole essence was dedicated to the Torah, to the point that it is known as the 'Torah of Moshe'. This is why Rashi gives the alternative explanation that on this day the wellsprings of wisdom were closed before Moshe. Though he was physically alive on this day, in his own eyes he was already dead because he was no longer able to learn Torah. So the 7th of Adar marks the day of his birth and his physical death, but he had completed his years of Torah life on the day before. This explains the two opinions as to when he died, physically it was on Shabbat, but spiritually it was on Erev Shabbat.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) tells us that Haman was casting lots for a day on which to kill all the Jews. "When the lot fell out on the month of Adar he became overjoyed. He said, 'The lot has fallen on the month that Moshe died'. However he did not know that on the seventh of Adar Moshe died, and on the seventh of Adar he was born." This is very peculiar. If Haman was such an expert on Jewish history that he knew the Oral tradition for the date of Moshe's death, why would he not also know that he was born on the same date, which is explicit in the text of the Torah in our portion? Also, why did it make Haman so happy when he saw that the lot fell out on Moshe's Yarzheit? How would that help him kill the Jews?
Perhaps we can answer these questions with Rabbi Eibschitz's explanation of the day of Moshe's death. The 7th of Adar was the date of Moshe's physical death, but he was already considered as if he had passed away from the day before because he was no longer able to learn Torah. Maybe Haman knew that the Torah was destroyed because the Jewish people had forsaken their study of the Torah. He knew that as long as they studied the Torah and observed the Mitzvot G-d would protect them and ensure that they not be wiped out. But when his lottery fell on the month when even Moshe gave up learning Torah he thought that this was a sign that he would be able to succeed in destroying the Jews.
Certainly he would have known the date of Moshe's birth, but what he didn't know was that at the same time that Moshe's sun was setting, and he was unable to continue with the Torah, he was investing Yehoshua with the task of leading the nation spiritually. "Moshe called to Yehoshua and said to him before all of Israel 'Be strong and brave, for you will come with this people to the Land...'". The Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) explains the phrase 'will come with', rather than 'will lead' that Moshe said to Yehoshua, you and the elders of the generation will lead the people into the Land". While Moshe was alive he was the Torah, and any questions or doubts would be resolved by him directly. After his death the decisions were rendered by a Sanhedrin (High Court) of many sages. Though they did not have the same direct relationship with G-d as during Moshe's lifetime, more people were involved with the Torah.
Instead of Moshe's death symbolising the end of Torah learning, as Haman had hoped, it marked the beginning of an era of increased individual connection to the Torah. The Torah lived on through all future generations who were learning 'the Torah of Moshe'. This is what Haman failed to understand. "On the seventh of Adar he was born" refers not only to Moshe's physical birth, 120 years earlier, but also to his spiritual rebirth through the continued study of the Torah by the Jewish people on the day of his death. Instead of Adar being the month when the Jews were more vulnerable to his threats, this was the time when each individual took over the role of Moshe, and strengthened their Torah study.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Parshat Netzavim (Rabbi Sedley)

For now and forever

The portion opens with Moshe gathering all the people "That you should enter into the covenant of the L-rd, and into His oath which the L-rd G-d make with you this day." Included in this oath are not only that generation, but "with those that stand today before the L-rd our G-d, and also with those who are not here with us this day" (v. 14). Both Rashi and Ramban explain that this comes to obligate all future generations in this covenant. The Abarbanel asks "By what right did that generation, which had stood at Sinai, obligate all the following generations to keep the Torah, when the other generations were not partners to that covenant?"
Nachshoni cites many different answers to this question. The Talmud seems to indicate that the souls of all future generations were present at that time. The Torah does not mean 'those who are not with us', but those who are with us, but only in spirit, not in body. According to this explanation our original question disappears, but we have to understand how souls, which do not yet have free choice, not having entered into a physical body, are able to make a decision. The answer must be that even though once the soul enters a body the person may think that they no longer wish to keep the covenant, in reality their true essence is their soul which does want to keep it. The corollary of this is that though we may sometimes act as if we have forgotten about G-d, this is only an aberration brought about by the yetzer hara influencing the body, but in essence a person always wants to do what is correct.
Rabbeinu Bachaye explains that one generation may legally obligate later generations in the vows which the earlier generation have made. Since the earlier generation are the roots from which the children grew, anything which affects the roots, also affects the branches. The first generation gives life to later generations, and in return can obligate them with their debts. Tevye the milkman tells us the importance of 'Tradition'. However, this explanation tells us that not only do we continue with our Judaism because 'that's what we've always done', but because our very existence is dependent upon continuing in the ways of our ancestors.
The Malbim gives several explanations. There is a principle in Halacha that a person may not cause a person a debt or loss without their knowledge, however they can cause them benefit even without their knowledge or consent. The Mitzvot are to our benefit, as the Mishna states (Maccot 3; 16), "Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya said: The Holy One Blessed be He, wanted to give merit to Israel, therefore He gave them a copious Torah and many commandments, as it is said, 'It pleased the L-rd for the sake of Israel's righteousness to magnify the Torah and make it glorious'". Therefore the generation of the desert were able to obligate future generations in this covenant, because ultimately it is for their benefit. We can see from this the tremendous gift that G-d has given us through offering us the Torah, and how happy we should be in having the chance to observe the laws. This is part of the reason that G-d punishes the nation so severely for not keeping the laws with happiness: "Because you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart ... therefore shall you serve your enemy..." (Deuteronomy 28; 47-8).
The Malbim also explains that G-d did not need the Jews to accept the covenant upon themselves. Even had they not agreed to the terms and conditions, G-d could still have expected them to keep the Torah and its laws, since He created them and redeemed them from Egypt. The Jewish people were thus acquired by G-d, and He can instruct them to do anything that He wants. However, in His mercy G-d gave the people the chance to accept the Torah voluntarily, and thus earn further merit for themselves. When the Jews were given the choice to accept the Torah, and did so voluntarily, they strengthened their faith to such an extent that it became deeply embedded in their souls, and was passed on to all future generations. This is one meaning of the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 88a) that even though G-d forced the Jews into accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai, they voluntarily accepted it upon themselves in the days of Mordechai and Esther. They realised then the kindness that G-d had done for them in saving them from Haman, and with renewed faith they accepted the Torah unconditionally.
Furthermore, since the covenant is unilateral, G-d will cause events that will bring the Jews back to the correct path if they fail to live up to what is expected of them. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand G-d will never allow us to forsake Him, and so will never abandon us. On the other hand, in order to bring us back to the proper behaviour G-d may need to cause us oppression and hardship, until we turn to Him in repentance, in recognition of our behaviour which caused the evil to befall us.

Netzavim - Vayelech summaries

This week is a double portion, leading up to Rosh Hashanah. So here are the summaries:

On the last day of his life Moshe gathers all of the Israelites and renews their covenant with G-d. This covenant also introduces the concept of Areivut, mutual responsibility for one another. He warns them against committing idolatry; G-d's anger and jealousy will be kindled against anyone who turns to the gods of the other nations. The punishment will be so great that the Land of Israel will be decimated, causing future generations to recognise that G-d has punished His nation. The Jews will be exiled to the four corners of the earth.
Eventually, through the difficulties of this exile the Jews will return to serving G-d. Then He will gather all of them to the Land of Israel and give them blessing and prosperity. The Torah is not distant from the Jews, but is accessible to all. Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has placed before them life and good, death and evil, and beseeches them to chose life. Moshe ends by calling heaven and earth as witnesses that the Jews should not forsake G-d and the Torah.

Moshe takes his leave of the Children of Israel. He is now 120 years old and will not lead them across the Jordan River. They should nevertheless remain strong and courageous. Moshe summons Yehoshua and instructs him to not be afraid, for G-d will be with him. Moshe writes out the entire Torah and gives it to the Kohanim.
At the end of the seven year cycle when all the Israelites come to Jerusalem for Succoth, the king should read out the book of Devarim to them. This is in order that everyone will hear, learn and fear G-d and be careful to perform all the words of the Torah.
G-d tells Moshe that his days are coming to an end, and tells him to summon Yehoshua to the tent of meeting. G-d appears to them both and tells them that the Jews will eventually turn to other gods, and therefore be punished with the curses mentioned. However eventually they will return to serve G-d and recognise the reason for their punishment. The Torah should be placed in the ark along with the tablets that Moshe received on Mount Sinai as a testimony to G-d's covenant. Moshe once again gathers the people and speaks to them the words of this song: