September 9, 2015
What is complete teshuva [return or repentance]? When a person has the opportunity to commit the original sin again, and is physically able to sin again, but refrains from sinning—not out of fear, or because of physical weakness, but because of his repentance . . . he is a baal teshuva (‘master of repentance’). Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 2:1
The stream of world news can become a deadening drone that we want to block out, especially as we prepare for the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (September 13-23 this year). But now and then an image emerges from the news stream that raises our awareness of eternal matters.
Last week the media ran pictures of Alan Kurdi, a three year old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. He and two other members of his family drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach a Greek island—the shore of Europe—in an inflatable raft. Many voices in Europe and around the world rose up to call for more compassion and help for refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern hot spots. What struck me as much as the image itself was one particular European voice, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, its close connection with universal civil rights will be destroyed.”
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September 8, 2015
Every year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I get ready for someone to object to the greeting “L’shana tovah” (“to a good year”), or even to the name of the holiday itself, Rosh Hashanah, which means literally “Head of the Year,” or New Year’s. Why would anyone object to such positive terms? Because, they’ll tell me, Rosh Hashanah isn’t really the New Year, it’s actually the first day of the seventh month (as if I didn’t know that). Then they might quote Exodus 12:1-2. “Adonai spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt; he said, ‘You are to begin your calendar with this month; it will be the first month of the year for you.’” The year begins with the first month, not the seventh. Case closed.
But, of course, there’s more to it than that, and there’s a good lesson here, which might even help us enter the Jewish year of 5776 with some needed optimism and hope.
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September 28, 2011
Abraham endured ten trials of his faith, according to Jewish tradition, and the last two involve Abraham’s two sons: he must cast Ishmael out of the camp, and offer up Isaac as a sacrifice. We read about both these trials on Rosh Hashanah; Ishmael on the first day and Isaac on the second. The Akedah or Binding of Isaac is one of the most familiar stories in Scripture, but we tend to overlook the sending away of Ishmael, even though it reflects one of the great themes of the High Holy Days.
The story opens with the birth and naming of Isaac, Yitzchak, whose name reflects the Hebrew root word for “laugh.” Sarah, who had laughed at the very idea of bearing a child as an old lady, now says “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with [or at] me” (Gen. 21:7). Later she sees Ishmael laughing with, or at, Isaac, and demands that he be sent away with his mother, Hagar. Abraham is distressed, but Hashem tells him to do what Sarah says and reassures him that Ishmael, like Isaac, will become a great nation. Then, in words that will be repeated verbatim in the Akedah, the text says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” (Gen. 21:14) to do God’s will. As in the Akedah he gathers up provisions, and then he lays them on Hagar’s shoulder, just as he will lay the firewood on Isaac’s shoulder, and sends them both off.
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September 19, 2011
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [and] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
From the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
When truth encounters the data of our lives, it gives rise to confession.
Truth itself can be pretty abstract, an ideal that dwells apart from our daily lives. But when we let the truth we find in Scripture shine on the details of our thoughts and behaviors, and speak the truth about what we see, truth is anything but abstract. It becomes something solid that works real changes into our lives. Speaking the truth about what we see is called confession, which isn’t a real popular term nowadays, but is one of the main practices of the Days of Awe (the High Holy Days, Sept. 28–Oct. 8 this year) and an essential part of the preparation for Yom Kippur. And confession of sin is a keynote of all the services of Yom Kippur itself.
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September 4, 2011
When the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for what seemed like half an hour (Rev. 8:1, CJB).
This week, our Mussar group is working on the virtue of silence (see www.rivertonmussar.org), but silence is the last thing you’d expect in heaven. Heaven’s the scene of unending, and loud, worship and praise. Just a few verses before the one above, John, the seer of Revelation, saw “a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language . . . and they shouted [or cried out with a loud voice] . . .” (Rev. 7:9–10, CJB). Before that, he had seen an even bigger and noisier crowd:
Then I looked, and I heard the sound of a vast number of angels—thousands and thousands, millions and millions! . . . And they shouted out, “Worthy is the slaughtered Lamb to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, glory and praise!” And I heard every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and on the sea—yes, everything in them—saying, “To the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb belong praise, honor, glory and power forever and ever!” (Rev. 5:11–13, CJB).
Worship bursts forth in words and music and loud voices, and heaven is a noisy place—so what is this sudden silence about?
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August 31, 2011
We’re in the middle of seven haftarot of consolation, seven readings from Isaiah that take us from Tisha B’Av to Rosh Hashanah. The haftarah for this week is Isaiah 51:12–52:12 and the haftarah for next week is Isaiah 54:1–10, so it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to skip right over Isaiah 53 (which begins at 52:13). Those of us who see Isaiah 53 as the greatest portrayal of Messiah Yeshua in the Hebrew Scriptures might be tempted to claim that it was left out of the reading cycle on purpose. But to be fair, there’s another explanation for its absence, since it doesn’t explicitly include the theme of comfort or consolation, or mention the return from exile that’s so prominent in other passages.
In fact, rather than being left out of the haftarah readings, it almost looks like chapter 53 got inserted as a parenthetical statement into the book of Isaiah between this week’s haftarah and next week’s. But, of course, that interpretation misses the point too, a major point that Isaiah is making in the way he composed his prophecy.
The key to this major point is one word, Hineni, which appears at the end of Isaiah 52:6.
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August 28, 2011
During the month of Elul, Jewish tradition recommends that your take some time each day for cheshbon ha-nefesh, or taking an account of the soul.
All the month of Elul before eating and sleeping let every man sit and look into his soul, and search his deeds, that he may make confession. (S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, citing Maharil)
Alan Lew notes the same idea in his book, This is Real and You are Totally Unprepared. (My good friend Rube–Richard Rubinstein–recommended this book on the High Holidays to me last year, not long before he died of cancer, so it’s especially meaningful to me.)
All the rabbis who comment on this period make it clear that we … must set aside time each day of Elul to look at ourselves, to engage in self-evaluation and self-judgment, to engage in cheshbon-ha-nefesh, literally a spiritual accounting. But we get very little in the way of practical advice as to how we might do this.
Rabbi Lew goes on to give some practical advice.
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