Archive for category Holidays
The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat allows us to think deeply about how the obstacles we face today will shape the benefits we will enjoy tomorrow.
Between Passover and the festival of Shavuos (Pentacost, celebrating the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai), tradition calls for every Jew to count the days and the weeks connecting the freedom of the exodus from Egypt with the responsible application of that freedom.
These seven weeks are a time filled with opportunity for personal growth, beginning with the awareness that little changes can add up to extraordinary transformation.
From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva
[Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say: Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds – to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few; then the wind will come and uproot it and turn it over. As it is said: “And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, on a salted land, uninhabited” (Yirmyahu 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom — to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not move it from its place. As it is said: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the water spreading its roots toward the stream, and it will not notice when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit” (ibid., 17:8).
Pirkei Avos 3:22
On the surface, Rabbi Elazar’s allegory appears easy to understand. Scholarship alone is not enough; only when wisdom influences action and produces virtue will it endure.
On closer examination, however, the image of a tree raises many questions. If wisdom is the source of action, why does Rabbi Elazar not compare wisdom to the roots and good deeds to the branches? Just as roots draw sustenance from the earth to nourish the tree, similarly the roots in the allegory should represent the wisdom that fosters action.
Moreover, granted that wisdom is not enough, and that without good deeds a person is like a tree without adequate support, why describe a tree with few branches in the second part of the allegory? If a person has many good deeds, why do the “branches” of his wisdom still have to be “few”?
And what is the point of mentioning the wind at all? Would it not have been simpler to describe a tree so unstable that it is in danger of toppling under its own weight, regardless of external forces?
Finally, why does Rabbi Elazar prove his lesson with verses describing land that is either parched or abundantly watered? Since the tree has no control over its environment, how are these verses relevant to his illustration?
THE ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS
Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that when he was a boy, a visiting rabbi asked him the following question: Since the Torah equates thought with action, then thinking of a question should be the same as actually speaking it. “If so,” concluded the rabbi, “you should be able to answer the question I am thinking at this moment.”
The young Abraham Twersky offered the only reply that seemed to make sense: “I am thinking of the answer,” he said.
The Torah’s equation of thought and deed informs us that thoughts are the first step toward actions and that actions are imperfect without sincere intent. Nevertheless, thoughts alone are not enough: although wisdom is indisputably the source of action, it is action that secures and preserves our wisdom. In the famous words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “man is drawn according to his deeds; his heart and all his thoughts follow inevitably after his actions, whether for good or for bad.”
Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.
In a letter to Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a former student he calls “Sarah” grapples with her indecision over whether she should continue to attend Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur eve. Having discarded the Torah observance of her youth to intermarry, she still feels drawn to this one last vestige of Jewish practice.
Sarah confesses that she feels like a hypocrite, and she wonders whether she angers God by standing before Him on the Day of Atonement when she is not even fasting, and when her whole life is a rejection of His commandments.
In his column in Mishpacha Magazine, Rabbi Feldman invited readers to offer their own responses. Here is mine:
You ask in your letter whether God sees you as a hypocrite for coming to shul on Yom Kippur. Your question contains its own answer.
Read the whole article here.
Finding the hidden meaning of Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah
What is the mysterious power of music? And how do we quantify the difference between the melodies that make us smile with tranquil joy, those that make us clap our hands, and those that make us leap to our feet and start to dance?
According to a study published in April by neuroscientists at Denmark’s Aarhus University, our dance reflex may have more to do with the beat that isn’t than with the beat that is.
“[It’s] not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity,” Maria Witek, the study’s lead author, told NPR, “but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity.”
In other words, songs that have layered rhythm — a repetitive underlying beat that merges with a syncopated pattern interrupted by rhythmic gaps — entice our minds to fill in those empty spaces with our own creative expressions. Too much regularity and the brain can find nothing to add; too little regularity and the brain can’t figure out how to engage.
This study may have a basis in Torah. The 18th Century Torah giant Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch defines the grammatical root rokad which we translate as “dance,” as having the connotation of skipping orfrolicking. There is an experimental playfulness that manifests itself in the natural human desire to fill in empty spaces, dark corners, and awkward silences. When we feel something is missing, our creative juices start flowing in ways that often have to be stemmed by our more cautious impulses and our better judgment. But we dare not stifle those inclinations, lest the fear of taking chances causes us to miss out on priceless opportunities. Always, we strive for balance.
Traditionally, rokad means to dance in a circle, symbolizing the coming together of beginnings and endings, the totality of the human condition as bounded by the circumference of the material world, and our interdependence upon one another in fulfillment of a shared destiny. There is a sense of completion in a circle, of restored unity and achieved purpose. We dance with joy upon attaining the feeling of security that comes from filling in the gaps, tying off loose ends, and imposing order on chaos; we revel in the blended satisfaction of finishing one task in preparation for the new mission that lies ahead.
On the afternoon of September 18th, a teenage driver lost control of his SUV as he sped down Salt Lake City’s Indiana Avenue. The GMC Yukon tore through the safety barrier, went airborne into a ravine, and landed upside down in three feet of water and the bottom of the gully. Dazed or unconscious, strapped in by their seat belts, the driver and his two passengers had minutes before they would drown.
What happened next offers a welcome relief from the relentless litany of strife and suffering that fills the headlines. Moments after the crash, nearly a dozen bystanders waded into the waist-high water and, working in unison, flipped the massive vehicle over onto its wheels, lifting the crash victims out from under the water and saving their lives.
But it might never have happened. As horrified onlookers stood frozen and stared at the capsized SUV, Leo Montoya, Jr., an out-of-work locksmith, overcame the Bystander Effect, plunged into the current and dove under the water in an effort to save the occupants. Unable to free them from their seat belts, only one option presented itself.
Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171
This article is not about me.
It’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.
This article is not about the time I found my voice. I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire. I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me. Everyone – including me – burst into laughter. I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.
Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant. I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant. But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.
It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services. The head of my yeshiva was old-school: imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation. My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.
It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays. A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors. Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.
This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.
This is what it’s about: two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.
* * *
The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim. Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience. After all, I could do so much better myself.
Until I couldn’t. During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader. And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.
What is a congregation? Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart? And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?
The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture. But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces. By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary. But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.
Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?
This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation. Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it? Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.
Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.
In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people. And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.
Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people? Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives? We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues. But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.
But she does not remain alone. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d. Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?
Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations? Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?
Is this Naomi? gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered. But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.
And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi! This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.
Each a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.
I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers. But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.