Singing Ashamnu: Striking a (Counterintuitive) Balance, By Rabbi Joshua Lookstein

The famous teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha – that everyone should  carry around 2 pieces of paper, one in each pocket, one that reads Bishvili nivra ha’olam (the world was created for me) and the other V’anochi afar va’efer (I am but dust and ashes) – has early echoes in Parshat Ekev. The beginning of the Parshais a roller coaster of similar emotions. At times, God seems to be boosting the confidence of B’nei Yisraeland at other times he makes sure they are humble. Baruch tihiyeh mikol ha’amim(you will be the most blessed from among all the nations).  Lo tira meihem(don’t be afraid of the nations who dwell in the land).

And yet, when your wealth increases, V’amarta bilvavechakochi v’otzem yadi asah li et hachayil hazeh(and you say in your heart, “my strength and the work of my hands made all this possible”), vizacharta et Hashem Elokecha(and you will then remember God), ki hu hanotein lecha koach la’asot chayil– it is He who gives you the ability to accumulate great wealth. Be humble. And there are other examples.

But then there are some pesukimthat seem like hybrid statements, including even the previous one. Bnei Yisrael, you have accumulated great wealth, you have achieved a lot in your lifetimes but it is God who gave you the foundation for your achievements. Or ki lo al halechem l’vado yichyeh ha’adam– not by the bread, the money, the living that you make for yourself, not on that alone can you live – ki al kol motza phi Hashem yichyeh ha’adam– but you can also live on sustenance that God provides. You can provide and God can provide. A combination. And finally, V’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta (you will eat, you will be satiated and you will bless God). You ate, you enjoyed, you earned it, but God had a hand in it.

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Teshuva: The Promise of Hope, By Rabbi Seth Grauer

As we approach Rosh Hashana and get ready to begin saying selichotI would like to explore a well-known Rambam and perhaps offer a possible insight into the Teshuva process.

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva, Perek 2 Halacha 2 that there are four stages within the Teshuva process:

  1. Azivat HaChetwhere a person decides to stop the sinning and cease from the aveira.
  2. Kabbalahwhere a person commits to not commit the aveira
  3. Charatawhere a person regrets the past.
  4. Viduiwhere a person actually verbalizes the sorrow and regret around the aveira.

What is particularly curious is that others, such as the Chovot Halevavot, also enumerate these same four steps in the teshuva process, but they reverse steps 2 and 3 and place regret before a commitment to not commit the aveiraagain. Their rational, which is in many ways intuitive, is that a person is generally motivated to decide to not sin again only if she or he truly regrets their sin. The reverse emphasizes this even more- if one doesn’t regret the sin, why would one commit to not violate it again?! First, we decide to stop sinning, we then regret the sin and only then we decide and promise to not commit the aveira again.

Why would the Rambam write that we should commit to stop the sin before regretting the fact that sinned?

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The Joy of Teshuvah, By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Like many Jews of a certain era, I was reared on stories of the trepidations of the Yamim Noraim – how entire towns in Europe would be terrroized, how people would walk around in apprehension of the approaching Yom Hadin, how every Jew would spend copious amounts of time reckoning with his or her flaws and foibles, how the Baalei Mussar pounded into their adherents the anguish awaiting the unrepentant sinner and his community. I do not doubt the veracity of those accounts but I can state that I do not see it anymore. It is not only that times have changed.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in different ways are both construed as festive days – Rosh Hashana as indicated by Nechemia (8:10) and Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year (Masechet Taanit 26b). Rav Kook’s primary thesis in Orot Hateshuvah was that repentance is supposed to be joyous, not just the outcome of forgiveness but the entire process of repentance. For sure, this was a new idea, and dissented from the more doleful approach of the Baalei Musar. To Rav Kook’s mind, the teshuvah of joy spoke more closely to the hearts of a modern generation. If repentance is not joyful, something is wrong. How so?

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Teshuva: Together, We Can Do It, By Rabbi Ori Bergman

Who do we talk to when we face a challenge? When we’ve faltered and are ashamed of ourselves, or when we lack clarity, to whom do we turn?

My most spiritually difficult times in life persisted in light of an absence of the support I desperately needed or didn’t realize I needed.

Judaism envisions having a support system that helps us see clearly during uncertainty and holds us accountable when we are hiding out.

If we have a personal issue, problem or failing and feel we cannot talk about it to anyone, then there’s a significant problem. As a Rabbi occupied with Jewish outreach, I’ve observed many Jews abandoning a commitment to Judaism due to the pain, challenges and confusion in their lives and not truly being understood by those tasked with understanding.  If only they had the right people to speak to. I can’t blame them, for I too was in those shoes facing significant spiritual challenges having no one I felt I could turn to.

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Insights on the Amidah of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, By Rabbiner Steven Langnas, München

What feelings do we experience as we turn the pages of our Machzor to the Amida for the Yomim Noroim? Do we think of the Text as a well trusted Mentor to guide us spiritually through the High Holy Days.? Or do we feel confronted with an unfamiliar Text that doesn’t speak to our souls?

Do we really feel a sense of “Pachad” and “Yiroh” , of Fear and Awe as we stand before our Creator? Do we consider ourselves among the “Zadikim” and “Yeshorim” , the Righteous and the Just, who rejoice in the learning of Thora and the performance of Mitzvos or are we fearful that we will be classified with the “Reshoim”, the Wicked” because of our sins?

Perhaps some insights into the construction, the history and the meaning of the Amida will help us to appreciate it better and in turn, enable us to experience  a more meaningful Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The basic Text for the Amida for the Yomim Noroim, for Maariv, Shacharis and Mincha , consists of six to seven printed pages. With the Vidui for Yom Kippur, about ten.
To be more concise, the text from the words  “Uvichen Ten Pachdecho” until “Hamelech Hakodosh” , our subject for this article, consists of 142 Words.

It doesn’t seem like much. Yet how much deep content, how many Doctrines and examples of our Jewish Weltanschauung are packed into these words!

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Rosh HaShana: Hats, Elephants, and God, by Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

What is this?

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Those who have not read The Little Prince will answer that it is a hat. However, the author of this children’s classic wants us to see more within our world. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry encourages us to allow our imaginations to see hidden things. In fact, argues his narrator, the picture above is not a hat but a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant. This might help you see what he means.

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We imagine that we see the world, as it is. Yet, much lies hidden below the surface. This is true not only of children’s drawings – but also of our internal pains, joys, and hopes. These pains, joys, and hopes are the elephant and boa constrictor to the possessions and appearances that are the hat. We are not what we own or what the mirror shows; we are how we dream and how we love.

We work during the High Holiday season to get below the surface. We attempt to transcend the incessant buzzing of our devices and to get beneath the pressing hum of work and social commitments. We try to more clearly see our truest pains, joys, and hopes. We seek a fuller appreciation of what the world really is and who we really are. We aspire to a heightened sense of God and ultimate meaning. This is what we desire from these days. Now, how do we do it?

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Shavuot: A Match Made in Heaven, By Rabbi Yaakov Glasman

We all experience challenging periods in life. Imagine you’re doing it tough and all of a sudden you meet the most wonderful person you could ever ask for. He/she is smart, kind, attractive, caring, funny and most importantly, a mentch. You fall in love instantly. You love them with all your heart and soul and the feeling is mutual. You get married and have the most romantic honeymoon. And then all of a sudden – as if out of nowhere – your newfound love bombards you with an endless list of demands and expectations, none of which were discussed with you prior to the wedding. How would that make you feel?

As fictional as it sounds, this “fairytale” was, in a spiritual sense, a sober reality for our ancestors some 3,330 years ago. The Jews had been completely demoralised and humiliated after 210 years of backbreaking Egyptian slavery in what was clearly one of the worst periods of ancient Jewish history. Then all of a sudden G-d comes to the rescue. He redeems us with “a strong hand and an outstretched arm”, destroys our enemies and promises to take us to the land of milk and honey. Finally, we found a loving and caring life Partner who was as passionate about us as we were about Him. He led us to Mount Sinai and gave us the most cherished gift of all – the Torah. Our Sages have referred to this gift as the “marriage” between G-d and the Children of Israel. We had new meaning in life, a fresh start and a divine purpose. For the first time in centuries, we were happy.

And then suddenly, immediately following the spiritual and emotional high of tying the knot with the Almighty, He bombards us with an onslaught of commandments and obligations, none of which he communicated to us beforehand. Indeed, in the portion immediately following the giving of the Torah there appear more commandments than almost any other portion in the entire Torah.

What was G-d trying to tell us?

In doing so G-d was teaching us one of the most foundational lessons for a healthy relationship, whether our relationship with G-d or with man: that love must ultimately lead to action. It’s one thing to fall in love. It’s another thing altogether to translate this into the behavioural arena. We love our spouses, yet we buy them flowers. We love our children, yet we hug and kiss them. We love our grandparents, yet we clear our diary to spend time with them. They know we love them so why bother with the good deeds? The answer is simple yet profound:  Because love is the catalyst for action, not its substitute.  In the words of the international bestseller The Five Love Languages –relationships are built on deeds, not words.

But as we know, this value is not always easy to maintain throughout one’s relationship. We sometimes fall into our comfort zone and become rather selective as to what “actions” we wish to contribute to our personal relationships. And just as it applies in the interpersonal space, so it does in our collective relationship with G-d.

As Jews today integrated in a society whose values are ever changing, we often find ourselves grappling to make sense of our own Jewish identity. Too many Jews today question the role Judaism and ritual play in their lives. Our opinions and world outlook are understandably informed by the culture in which we live, and when those values clash with our Jewish values, the former may trump the latter. All too often this results in a process of trimming down our own Jewish belief system to create a version we’re comfortable with.

The danger inherent in this process is that our final product may bear no resemblance of the Torah G-d gave us at Sinai. By delisting, for instance, prayer, Shabbat, Kashrut, Mikvah and other commandments seen by some as senescent and antiquated, one ends up with a Judaism defined exclusively in terms of humanism. Being a good person becomes the new Jewish motto whilst ritual is relegated to a bygone era.

Indeed, as we celebrate on Shavuot our having received the Torah, we reflect on what it was like to stand at Mount Sinai and hear the immutable word of G-d in the form of the Ten Commandments. We reflect on their content, their meaning, and perhaps most importantly, their composition: five commandments about faith and ritual, and the other five about humanism and menchlichkeit. The fifty-fifty split illustrates the inestimable value G-d places on our both ritual and menchlichkeit.  Both form an equal part of our national Jewish identity and both did, and always should, form equal parts of our Jewish identity. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Glasman is Senior Rabbi at Melbourne’s St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. He served as President of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria from 2009 until 2012 and then as President of the Rabbinical Council of Australia and New Zealand from 2016 until 2017.