Friday, September 29, 2006

Balanced repentance

On one hand, it is easy to give up on repentance. You recognize that some of your behavior is flawed and could use improvement. You call out to God but don't feel God answering. Even after you commit to change yourself, you find yourself slipping into your earlier behavior. You have a picture in mind of how you would like to see yourself, improved. But you see no clear path by which to get there.

On the other hand, it is easy to get the feeling that you had sins to atone for, but that now you regret them, will never repeat them, and in general have done the full measure of repentance. The yamim noraim require teshuva - but now you are close to God, you have done teshuva, and you are done with teshuva.

These are the dual challenges of the Yamim Noraim: to keep your heart up, but your head down. It's relatively easy to achieve one at the expense of the other, and whenever you work at one, the other tends to slip. It is extremely difficult to repent both out of love and out of fear. But that is the only way to achieve real character growth. Figure out in which of the two directions you are lacking. And work to bring yourself to the rigorous, painful, but morally productive emotional state in which you are vividly aware, both of the desperateness of your current condition, but also of the immense capabilities for love and growth that lie within you.

Thirsty Soul

Which zemirot were written for occasions other than the ones they are currently used for? "Hamavdil", for instance, which we sing after the end of Shabbat, fits motzaei Yom Kippur (or Shabbat Shuvah?) very well. Presumably it was written with one of those occasions in mind. But that's common knowledge.

Similarly, it could be that "Tzama nafshi", which is listed as one of the Shabbat zemirot, was actually written for Rosh Hashanah. Almost every line expresses a main theme of Rosh Hashanah. (I don't have time to write this up; check for yourself.) Meanwhile, there is no mention of Shabbat. Plus, its well-known tune is not inappropriate for Rosh Hashanah.

Even if this hypothesis is wrong, and (for example) Tzama Nafshi was perhaps written for no particular occasion but just as nice religious poetry - nevertheless, all the Rosh Hashanah-like qualities make it a great song to sing on Rosh Hashanah. (Or, for that matter, Shabbat Shuvah, seeing as I missed my chance to post this before Rosh Hashanah.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Since it's the time of year that we look back and evaluate...

I've noticed a benefit to writing regular blog entries.

At every level of education, whenever you get a writing assignment, it is to write a certain number of pages. Thus, you end up planning ahead of time how long each part of the essay or paper will be. If it's too long or short, you add "filler" or cut things out accordingly. You follow the assigned structure, regardless of how the ideas should really be expressed best.

When writing blog entries, because the initiative is yours, you have none of those issues. There is no page requirement, so you can write every idea using exactly the number of words it takes to express it. If an idea isn't coming out right, or doesn't fit with the rest of what you wrote, you can cut it out and save it for later, or delete it entirely. If your train of thought takes you in a new and more complicated direction, there is time and space to develop that too.

Eventually you find that your thoughts and logical processes are displayed, almost graphically, on the page. If there is a weak point in your argument, it finds expression in a weak sentence. You can't fix the sentence without fixing the argument too. But once every paragraph division makes sense and every line flows smoothly into the next, you know that the argument you have just written is flawless and is guaranteed to be correct.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Two Different Holidays, and Two Holidays which Unite

Two Themes

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur tend to be lumped together as the "Yamim Noraim", with really long prayers, somber tunes, repentance, and so on. Perhaps surprisingly, they in fact have very different basic themes. To give a general, simplified overview:

  • Rosh Hashanah's purpose is to commemorate the fact that God is king of the universe. This is necessary background for the holidays which follow later in the month. The shofar has two main historical purposes: as a declaration of solemnity (like at a king's coronation), and as a kind of siren in wartime, connoting a sense of urgency and crisis. Both are appropriate for Rosh Hashanah. Historical allusions in the prayers (the Patriarchs, Noach, and Mount Sinai) are less relevant to Jewish history than they are to creating a sense of God's authority, power, and awe over the whole world. We request, mainly, that these qualities be made obvious and recognized by all mankind.

  • Yom Kippur begins with Israel's sin regarding the golden calf. Atonement for this sin was achieved through Moshe's prayer, and more formally through special sacrifices in the newly built Mishkan. In later history, these are paralleled by communal repentance and the Temple service. Thus, our prayers focus on confession, on forgiveness based on God's special relationship with the Jewish people, and on (restoration of) the Temple service. God's holiness is emphasized more than God's power.

And Thus

As expected, the Rosh Hashanah theme is easily recognized in many RH prayers, and likewise for YK. In addition, however, there are also several prayers which are recited on both holidays, but at no other time of year. Some of them combine both holidays' themes in very interesting ways.

In particular, consider the "Uvechen" prayer which is inserted into the third blessing of every RH and YK Shemoneh Esreh. I will quote successive lines of it in italics, each followed by an explanation of which holiday the line "belongs" to.

1. "In every generation ascribe kingship to God; For he alone is exalted and holy."

A brief introduction to the whole prayer. It does not express what we hope for in the future, but what we should do now, in relation to the hopes which will next be expressed. The mention of kingship links it strongly to the RH theme, while holiness links it to YK.

2. "And thus, may your name be sanctified - Hashem our God - over Israel your people, over Jerusalem your city, over Zion the home of your glory, over the kingdom of the house of David your anointed one, and over your sanctuary and Temple."

A pure YK prayer. It calls for God to redeem the Jewish people and restore the Temple, and it mentions sanctity. There is no universalism or mention of power or kingship, ideas which the RH theme emphasizes.

3. "And thus, place your fear - Hashem our God - over all your handiwork, and your terror over all that you created. Let all beings see you, and all creations bow down to you; let them form one association to perform your will wholeheartedly. For as we know - Hashem our God - dominion is yours, strength is in your left hand and power in your right, and your name is awesome over all that you created."

A pure RH prayer. God's power over all mankind is repeatedly mentioned. The special relationship with Israel is not.

4. "And thus - Hashem - grant honor to your people, praise to those who fear you, hope to those who seek you, fluency to those who beseech you, happiness to your land, joy to your city, fulfilled destiny to David your servant, and resumed light to the son of Yishai, your anointed one - soon, in our days."

A pure YK prayer. Not only does it repeatedly mention the fulfillment of the God/Israel relationship, but it emphasizes the prayers of those who are repenting and calling out to God.

5. "And thus, the righteous will see and rejoice; the upright will revel; the devout will call out in delight - for corruption will disappear, and all evil will evaporate like smoke, when the reign of wickedness is removed from the earth."

The RH theme dominates here. The focus is the removal of evil from the entire world. The righteous people repeatedly mentioned could be non-Jewish. Even if they are specifically Jews, that fact is not considered important.

6. "And may you rule - Hashem our God - soon, alone, over all your creations; on Mount Zion the home of your glory, and in Jerusalem your holy city."

This line, the climax of the prayer, combines the RH and YK themes. One one hand, God will reign over the entire world. On the other hand, the Jewish people will be redeemed and returned to the Temple in Jerusalem. By suggesting that God will rule - but rule "in" Jerusalem - the goals of the two holidays are fused together.

7. "As it is written, 'Hashem will rule forever; your God, Zion, for all generations. Halleluyah.' "

We conclude with a Biblical verse to reinforce the requests. Here too, God rules - but specifically from Jerusalem. Thus, as in the final request, the two holidays' themes are united.

In Summary

This particular prayer I see as an "anthem" of the Yamim Noraim. It expresses the themes of each holiday, alternating between one and the other. Lines 2 and 4 relate to Yom Kippur; 3 and 5 relate to Rosh Hashanah. In the remaining lines - 1, 6, 7 - the goals of the two holidays are united. God will be recognized by all. And Israel will repent and be restored. These goals are distinct, and each has a separate holiday devoted to it. But in the final analysis, in the view of Judaism, they are inseparable.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

13 Middot

(Credit for this mostly to R' Menachem Leibtag)
The core of the slichot (and Yom Kippur) prayers is the 13 Middot or Attributes of God. In selichot, they are recited over and over with various songs and poems in between. At first glance they seem like a kind of magic spell which instantly gets you forgiveness for your sins. But that would be very strange and, I think, foreign to Judaism. What, in fact, do they mean? Why are they recited?

If you look at the Ten Commandments, you will notice something interesting. They include not just commandments and reasons for the commandments, but also descriptions of God. For example, God is "zealous" ("kana", 2nd commandment) and unforgiving to sinners (3rd commandment).

Historically, the Ten Commandments were written on tablets and given to Moshe. But after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe broke the tablets. This symbolized a more important fact: that the covenant signified by the 10 Commandments was now nullified. It had to be, because a zealous and unforgiving God could not coexist with a sinning Jewish people. When Moshe went back to God, there were two options. Either the Jewish people would be annihilated. Or else, God's attributes would have to change.

If you make a list of all the attributes of God in the second and third Commandments, and compare them to the 13 Middot (though the order is different), you will find that the "zealous" attributes in the Commandments have "non-zealous" parallels among the Middot. For example, "el kana" is replaced by "el rachum vechanum", "lo yenakeh" by "venakeh", "poked avon" by "nose avon", and so on. After the sin of the golden calf, God made a new covenant with the Jewish people. The actual commandments were unchanged (and so did not have to be repeated). But God's manner of relating to the Jewish people did change. Absolute justice was replaced by a mixture of justice and forgiveness. The changes were recorded for posterity in the 13 Middot, which represent a new set of tablets and a new covenant.

Obviously, God cannot forgive every sin, all the time, nor would that be desirable. After the 13 Middot, the Torah still sometimes mentions God's zeal, jealousy, and unforgiving justice. Sometimes God will be merciful, and sometimes not. Whenever we mention the 13 Middot in prayers, we are alluding to both covenants. We are praying that God act according to the later, merciful covenant, though the earlier model is still an option as well.

"Zechor lanu hayom brit shlosh esreh" - "Remember for us, today, the covenant of the 13 attributes"

Family and Aliyah


Monday, September 11, 2006

Esther and Batsheva II

Apologies to those who already saw this piece in English some months back. Of course nobody is going to read it in Hebrew. That's not a problem, though, as I translated it just to test my Hebrew writing skills. My posting it was just the excuse and motivation for translating it.

מגילת אסתר(ב,ז) מספר שאחרי שמתו ההורים של אסתר, מרדכי לקח את אסתר "לבת". לפי המדרש הידוע, אסתר באמת הפך להיות האישה של מרדכי ולא בת החורגת שלו. אני רוצה לחקור את הרקע ואת המסר של מדרש זו.

יש (לפחות) עוד מקום אחד בתנ"ך ששם מתייחסים לאשת מישהו כמו לבתו - בסיפור דוד ובת-שבע (שמואל ב יב). כשהנביא נתן רוצה להוכיח את דוד על חטאו עם בת-שבע, נתן מספר משל של איש רש בעל רק "כבשה אחת קטנה" שהוא מגדל באהבה, עד ש"ותהי לו לבת". לצערו, איש עשיר אחד בעל הרבה עדרי צאן גונב את הכבשה היחידה של הרש, ושוחט ואוכל אותה. דוד, כששומע את הסיפור, כועס ודורש את עונש העשיר. נתן משיב לו שהוא עתה הרשיע את עצמו. במשל, דוד מייצג את העשיר, אוריה את הרש, ואישתו בת-שבע את הכבשה שהרש חישב לה כ"בת".

כשהמדרש אומר שה"בת" של מרדכי באמת היתה "אישתו", אני חושב שהוא רומז לבת-שבע, ה"אישה" האחרת שנקראה "בת". יש עוד הקבלות ברורות בין הסיפורים. מרדכי עומד במקום אוריה. יותר חשוב, המלך אחשורוש עומד במקום המלך דוד. כמו שדוד כפה קשר של ניאוף בינו לבין בת-שבע, אחשורוש כפה נישואי תערובת עם אסתר.

מה שמעניין זה שהקשר של ניאוף בין דוד לבת-שבע הפך יותר מאוחר להיות לגיטימי לגמרי. אחרי מות אוריה, דוד לקח אותה כאישה חוקית. בנם היה שלמה, שהביא את ישראל לשיא עוצמתו, שבנה את בית המקדש הראשון, ושבו נמשך שלשלת המלכות בית של בית דוד. המדרש שלנו מציע שמשהו דומה קרה בין אחשורוש לאסתר. למרות שהתחלת זיווגם היתה בחטא, בסוף היא גרמה להצלת היהודים מגזרת המוות של המן. אפשר עוד לומר שההקבלה הזאת היא מקור למדרש אחרת, האומרת שהמלך דריוש - שנתן רשות ליהודים לבנות את בית המקדש השני - היה בנם של אחשורוש ואסתר.

לפי מדרשנו, המסר המשותפת של אסתר ובת-שבע זה שכשאתה נמצא במצב בעייתי מבחינה רוחנית, אסור לך להתייאש או להתפרש מהמצב. אלא, עליך - כמו שעשו דוד ואסתר - להתענות, לוודות את החטא, ולעבוד עם כל הכח שיש לך כדי להציל את המצב ולהפוך את הגזרה. אז, חטאי מוות והשמדה העומדת להתרחש יכולים להיהפך לגאולת העם ולבניית בית המקדש. אם הכוונה והמאמץ הם נכונים, מתוך המשבר הגדול יכולה לבוא הגאולה השלמה.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Not Just Any Tree

"The righteous person will flourish like the date-palm; he will grow like a cedar in Lebanon,
Planted in the house of Hashem, in the courts of our God they flourish." (Tehilim 92:13-14)

The basic meaning of these lines is obvious. The righteous person will not only survive, but will become as strong, resilient, and respected as the impressive palm and cedar trees. But what does the second verse add? We know that righteous people will succeed, because they are close to God and do what God wants. Why the repeated, specific mention of the Temple?

There is one other context in which Tanach mentions trees planted in the Temple. This is the Asherah - the idolatrous tree which was planted at holy sites and perhaps served as an object of worship alongside an idol. (The Torah, of course, condemns the practice.) The double mention of the Temple, in connection with the trees, strongly indicates that the righteous person is being compared to an Asherah.

This quite daring metaphor sheds light on how Judaism differs from other religions. The righteous person, standing in place of the Asherah, symbolizes what is important to Judaism. The Jewish people is a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation". Each person, going about his or her daily routine, has the opportunity to sanctify his surroundings and personal relationships. Such a person thus merits the closeness to God that other religions associate with idols, with mystical experiences, and with sites of revelation.

Friday, September 01, 2006

City on a Hill

There were once two brothers, both farmers, who lived on opposite sides of a hill in central Israel. One was married and had a house full of kids. The other lived by himself.

One night, the first brother thought to himself, "I have a whole family to support, while my brother, who produces the same amount of crops that I do, keeps it all for himself. It would only be fair for me to take some of his crops, to even things out." He decided to steal some of his brother's crops.

Simultaneously, the second brother was thinking. "I envy my brother who has a whole family to support him. What if I get hurt or sick and there is nobody to help out? I need to build up a surplus, just in case." He too decided to steal from his brother.

That night, the brothers set out to steal from one another. But the next morning, they were amazed to find that they had no more wheat in their storehouses than they had the day before. This scene repeated itself several days in a row.

One night the two brothers bumped into each other, carrying bundles of wheat. They each realized what the other had been doing, and started beating each other up.

Many years later, on that exact spot, it was decided to build the Knesset.