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Had Gadya, One Little Goat

Excerpted from Dr. Erica Brown’s ‘Seder Talk: A Conversational Haggada,’ co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

One Little Goat

Had Gadya is a fanciful whimsy of a song, likely of medieval German origin. This type of folksong that introduces characters who each have a destructive relationship with the previous character creates an image of a creature who ultimately swallows all. While it is a song performed with a lot of enthusiasm, props, and sound effects, it hides a certain dark message. Are we – on this night of the Paschal lamb (which could be a goat, according to Exodus 12:5 – “you may take it from sheep or from goats”) – suggesting that so many of our enemies have come to swallow us and obliterate us? We get the last laugh. We still survive to sing about our vulnerability. We are the one little goat who outdid the typical domestic enemies: the cat, the dog, the stick, the fire. And we even beat the larger, more threatening, harder, but looming enemies: the ox, the butcher, the Angel of Death, before finally God appears. Some name each animal as representing a different nation bound on our destruction, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Crusaders and then more modern-day enemies. What starts the entire song moving is the two zuzim used to purchase the goat, referring to the two tablets given to us at Sinai. Because we were claimed and “purchased” for this covenant, God ultimately intervenes to make sure that we are protected and redeemed, and that is the message of Passover generally as we close the Seder. The song asks us not to fear the repetition of our hardest hours in history because God breaks the cycle of violence, and we endure. It also communicates a more personal message when we see ourselves as a vulnerable little goat facing difficult demons and walls ahead. It is the little goat or lamb – the small, innocent symbol of all that is precious and fragile in this world – that will live on, that will become the Paschal lamb and symbolize our freedom for eternity. We never ask to turn into the ox or the butcher to combat our enemies. We ask to stay small and humble and for our humility to be the hallmark of our identity, along with the two zuzim, the laws, that keep us holy.


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Parshat Teruma: Living Up to Your Image

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages– Exodus co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

Living Up to Your Image

We read in this morning’s sidra of the instructions given to Moses to build the Tabernacle. Among other things, he is commanded to build the Ark, containing the Tablets of the Law. This aron, Moses is told, should be made of wood overlaid with “zahav tahor,” “pure gold,” both on the inside and the outside of the Ark: “mibayit umiĥutz tetzapenu”(Exodus 25:11).

Our Rabbis (Yoma 72b) found in this apparently mundane law a principle of great moral significance. Rava said: From this we learn that “kol talmid ĥakham she’en tokho kevaro eno talmid ĥakham,” “a scholar whose inner life does not correspond to his outer appearances is not an authentic scholar.” The Ark, or aron, as the repository of the Tablets of the Law, is a symbol of a talmid ĥakham, a student of the Law. The “zahav tahor,” “pure gold,” represents purity of character. And the requirement that this gold be placed “mibayit umiĥutz,” both within and without the Ark, indicates the principle that a true scholar must live in such a manner that he always be tokho kevaro, alike inwardly and outwardly.

Thus, our Rabbis saw in our verse a plea for integrity of character, a warning against a cleavage between theory and practice, against a discontinuity between inwardness and outwardness, against a clash between inner reality and outer appearance. A real Jew must always be tokho kevaro.

Now that sounds like a truism, but it is nothing of the sort. As a matter of fact, at a critical juncture of Jewish history this requirement was the occasion for a famous controversy. The Talmud (Berakhot 27b) refers to the time when the Patriarch of Israel, Rabban Gamliel, the aristo cratic descendant of Hillel, was deposed from his office as the head of the Sanhedrin, and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria was elected in his place. Rabban Gamliel had always been strict about the requirement of tokho kevaro: he declared that any students who could not say unhesitatingly that they possessed the quality of tokho kevaro were not permitted to enter the academy. When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria ascended to this office, he cancelled the requirement that every student should have attained this balance between inner life and outer life. As a result, many more students were attracted to the academy, and from four to seven hundred new benches had to be placed in the study hall. In other words, the question was: Does a failure to achieve tokho kevaro disqualify someone? Rabban Gamliel answered “yes.” Rabbi Eliezer said “no.” The latter maintained that the absence of tokho kevaro invalidates his credentials as a talmid ĥakham, a scholar, but not as an average ethical personality. Even if one has not yet attained this ideal of character, let him study Torah and eventually he will learn how to achieve tokho kevaro.

At any rate, both these Sages agree that tokho kevaro is a great and worthy Jewish ideal.

But if so, we are confronted by a problem in Jewish ethics. There are times when Jewish law does distinguish between private and public conduct. There is, for instance, the famous halakhic concept of marit ayin, that is, that we must avoid even the semblance of wrong-doing. Thus, for instance, the Talmud tells of a man who walks in the fields on the Sabbath and falls into water or is caught in a downpour and is drenched. When he removes his clothing, the Talmud tells us (Shabbat 146b) he should not place them in the sunlight to dry, for fear that his neighbors, not knowing of his accident, will assume that he had laundered his clothing on Saturday and thus violated the Sabbath. Or, as another example, the Shulĥan Arukh (Yoreh De’a 87:3) prohibits drinking coconut milk at a meat meal lest an onlooker assume that the law against eating meat and milk together is being violated. Therefore, a coconut shell should be placed on the table to eliminate any chance for such misinterpretation. Similarly, in the context of our own lives, even completely non-dairy margarine should not be used during a meat meal, unless the carton is on the table, thus avoiding the possibility of imputing to us the transgression of the law against eating milk with meat.

Now is not this law of marit ayin in violation of the concept of tokho kevaro? If in his heart a man knows that he is doing no wrong, should he not act the same way outwardly, ignoring others and their suspiciousness?

In addition to marit ayin, there are other instances where the Halakha distinguishes between inner and outer life. Thus, ĥillul Shabbat, the violation of the Sabbath, is at all times a most serious infraction of the Halakha. Yet ĥillul Shabbat befarhesya, violating the Sabbath in public, is considered far worse than doing so in the privacy of one’s own home. Or, to take another example, ĥillul Hashem, the profanation of the divine Name, is considered a dreadful sin; to disgrace God is always disgraceful. But to perform ĥillul Hashem berabbim, to desecrate God’s Name in public, is not only disgraceful but totally unforgiveable.

Do not these instances also reveal that the Jewish tradition does not always maintain the principle of tokho kevaro? Does it not lend religious support to this deep gulf between the two aspects of every human life, the inner reality and the image in the eyes of others?

In order to understand what our tradition meant, it is important to read carefully the specific idiom that the Talmud uses. It recommendsthat we always strive for tokho kevaro, that our “inside” be similar to our “outside,” but it does not ask us to develop baro ketokho, an outer appearance that conforms to an inner reality. There is no demand that our external image be reduced to the dimensions of what we really are like within ourselves; there is, instead, a demand that we keep up the appearances of decency and Jewishness and honor, and then strive for tokho kevaro, for remaking our inner life to conform to the image that we project.

It often happens that the tokh, the inner life of man, is cruel and filthy and corrupt, whereas the bar, the outer image he projects in his circle and in his society, is clean and compassionate. Inwards, he is ruthless and crude; outwards, he is polite and delicate and considerate. Modern man has learned well the lesson that Freud taught: even infants, apparently so innocent, are seized by inner drives that are destructive and grasping. Of course, our grandparents, less modern and less sophisticated than we, knew the same principle from a more ancient and more reliable source than Freud. The Bible had already taught at the very beginning that “yetzer lev ha’adam ra mineurav,” “the inclination of the heart of man is evil from his very earliest youth” (Genesis 8:21).

Hence the Rabbis, contemplating this inner perversity and outer glitter, demand consistency – but in one direction only – tokho kevaro! Do not destroy your outer image; in fact, preserve it through the observance of marit ayin. Enhance it – and then live up to it! Develop a great outer life, and thereafter transform your inner life in order to equalize your whole existence. Those who reverse the procedure, and act with crudeness and vulgarity because they think that this is being consistent with their real thoughts, because it shows that they are “sincere,” are ignorant – and worse. There is a certain tyranny in such sincerity which is used as the rationalization for being a bully.

It is therefore naïve and dangerous for a man to act the way he is; he should try to be as decent as the way he acts. It is not so important that I say what I mean; it is more important that I mean what I say.

Thus we may understand the significance of the concept of marit ayin. It protects my public image and the social model that I project, and I then have something to live up to as I strive for the realization of tokho kevaro. Even as the Ark containing the tablets must be placed with pure gold “mibayit umiĥutz,” “inside and outside,” so too man must live up to the highest ideals both in his inner life and his outer appearance.

Unfortunately, some otherwise good Jews act lightly with regard to the principle of marit ayin and dismiss it offhand. Worse yet, some flippantly regard it as a kind of hypocrisy. But this attitude only shows their confusion and insensitivity. Hypocrisy is a conscious misleading of people, an acting out of a role I didn’t believe in. In Hebrew, hypocrisy is “tzeviut,” which literally means “painting”; for I purposely and consciously project an image which I do not want to be my reality. I pretend to be what I don’t even care to be. A man who comes to synagogue services regularly because it is good for his business, but who does not really care about religion at all, is a genuine hypocrite. But if one comes to shul despite his non-observance at home or in the office because he desires to learn, or wishes to be instructed, or hopes to be inspired, or if he is confused and he is looking for a way out of his dilemma – then his approach is not only intelligent but honorable. The next step, one which qualifies an ordinary human being as a scholar, is – tokho kevaro! It is important, therefore, to build up your image and then live up to it.

To reject the principle of marit ayin is to commit three fundamental mistakes. First, it is a reduction of the kavod hatzibur, the honor of the community, for by giving the appearance of wrong-doing, I lower the level of public observance of the laws of decency and the Torah in general. Second, it is a diminution of the kevod haShekhina, the honor due to God, for by giving the impression that I do not care about His laws, I have committed ĥillul Hashem, the desecration of the divine Name. Finally, a flippant attitude towards marit ayin represents a self denigration, a lapse of kevod atzmo, of the honor due to one’s self – for I have given myself a petty image, and therefore I must remain with a trivial inner self.

But let us take that argument one step further. Not only must I observe the principle of marit ayin, which is negative, in the sense of not harming my image, but in a positive sense that I must undertake a conscious creation of a greater image even if it is only in my own eyes, and then proceed to tokho kevaro.

Thus, to take one example: In the technopolitan culture in which we live, with its busyness and its glitter and its gadgetry, we often fail to experience the emotional dimension of religion. One of the greatest commandments in the Torah is ahavat Hashem, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 6:5). But how many of us can experience such love? What does one do if he feels that his inner resources have dried up, that he is incapable of any deep experience or feeling? Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Habad movement of Hasidism, recommends a solution (Tanya, Likutei Ma’amarim 15): Act as if you are possessed of ahavat Hashem, not in the eyes of others but in the eyes of your own self. Live as if you were possessed of a passionate love of God – and sooner or later, the outer appearance will evoke an inner love, the image will create the reality, and by the process of tokho kevaro you will indeed arrive at a level of genuine love. Otherwise, we are left only with despair and never can make any progress.

The same is true of one’s social relations. Just as we are commanded to love God, so do we have a commandment of ahavat rei’im, the love of neighbor or fellow. Yet this commandment is much easier to advocate than to practice, for what if one has unlovable neighbors? What if one has not the ability to love his fellow men as he thinks he ought to? An insight to the solution is provided by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who points to the peculiar grammatical construction of this commandment. The Torah says (Leviticus 19:8): “ve’ahavta lere’akha kamokha,” “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Actually, the normal Hebrew should be “Thou shalt love et re’akha,” rather than “lere’akha.” The way it is written, the verse should be literally translated as “Thou shalt love to thy neighbor as thyself.” What does this mean? Rabbi Hirsch answers: Genuine love of one’s neighbor must come later; first one must love to him, i.e. one must act in a loving manner to him, one must play the role of the loving fellow man – and then ultimately he will indeed come to love him. First we must build up the image, and then, by the process of tokho kevaro, we come to achieve a new inner transformation.

As a final example, let us take the matter of joy or happiness. This week we welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar, about which our tradition teaches: “mi shenikhnas Adar marbim besimĥa,” when the month of Adar comes one must increase his happiness or joy. A beautiful idea; however, what if I am miserable? How can one command a person to be happy? I often talk to people who are deep in the doldrums, and the answer I usually receive – and a very genuine one – is: How can you encourage me when my luck is bad, my situation forlorn, my existence boring, my life dull, and pain ever present? But the answer of the Jewish tradition, accumulated in the course of three thousand years, is that happiness or joy is a state of mind which can be inspired from without as well as aroused from within. If one acts happy, one eventually emerges from under the burden of sadness. Hasidism made a great principle of this idea. They drank a “leĥayyim,” sang in the synagogue, and even danced, declared that sadness is a sin, and tried to inspire happiness, even artificially – and they succeeded. In a continent and in an age when European Jewry was seized with despair because of false messiahs, because of massacres and political persecutions, because of economic and cultural deprivation, Hasidism was able to inspire the idea of acting happy, and then being happy – by a process of tokho kevaro! Create a greater image than your reality is, and then change over your reality to conform to the image.

To summarize, then, what we have said: To demand, as some deluded people sometimes do, that we become baro ketokho, that we remake our outer life to conform to our inner life, is to condemn men to the lowest station of humanity and to deny them hope. However, to urge them towards tokho kevaro is to hold forth a realizable ideal in the finest tradition of Jewish ethical optimism. Through concern for marit ayin, we preserve that image. Through the other means we have mentioned, we enhance that image.

And then, we must live up to it: “mibayit umiĥutz titzapenu.”

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Chanukah: On the Threshold

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays


In its discussion of the proper placement of the Hanukkah menorah, the Talmud (Shabbat 22a) decides in favor of R. Shmuel mi-Difti: one must place the menorah at the left of the doorpost as one enters, with the mezuzah on the right. Maimonides codifies this halakhah almost verbatim (Hilkhot Hanukkah 4:7).

But what drove the Talmud and the Rambam to focus on the petah habayit, the entrance to the house? What makes the doorpost or threshold so important in the Halakhah? If indeed the point is that one must feel surrounded by mitzvot, why not declare that one must kindle the menorah while wearing a tallit, or use some other method to feel enveloped in the sanctity of the mitzvot? This is not dissimilar to the question posed by the Penei Yehoshua, namely, why does the gemara posit that the mitzvah of Hanukkah refers specifically to the home, the bayit, treating this particular mitzvah differently from every other mitzvah we must perform with our bodies and which refer to us as individuals, not to our homes?

I suggest that the threshold, the petah ha-bayit, is a symbol of instability and doubt, of confusion and diffidence. On the threshold, a person stands between inside and outside, undecided as to whether he is to go in or out. The threshold as such a symbol is found often in the Tanakh. In the Joseph story (Gen. 43:18), the brothers are frightened as they are ushered into the palace of Joseph. They approach the official in charge as they speak to him from the petah ha-bayit. They are hesitant, wavering between protesting and keeping silent. When Lot goes out to face the angry mob (Gen. 19:6), he speaks to them from the threshold of his house, unsure of how to treat this unholy gathering of Sodomites, uncertain as to whether or not he will survive the encounter. Earlier yet, when Cain is irate at the divine reaction to his offering, he is told that if he will not improve his ways, sin will crouch at his petah—again the symbol of uncertainty. Man is always vacillating between yielding to the blandishments of the yetzer ha-ra and heroically overcoming his lust.

So does Hanukkah contain this symbol of the irresolute. The Rambam, in his Iggeret ha-Shemad, writes of the harsh evil decrees promulgated by the Greek authorities, “one of which was that one should not shut the door of his petah ha-bayit lest he exploit the privacy of his home to perform mitzvot.” This left the Jews of that era in deep and frightening doubt: to yield to the Greeks and avoid death, or to defy them and keep the faith? Hence the connection between Hanukkah and the threshold.

To return to our original theme: the threshold now has two supports, as it were—the mezuzah to the right and the Hanukkah menorah to the left. The mezuzah represents the inside of the house, guarding all that has been taken within. Thus, it is affixed to the right upon entering, not upon exiting. The Halakhah also insists that the entrance must contain a door in order to fulfill properly the mitzvah of mezuzah. The mezuzah, as it were, pleads for a closed door so that it may guard the interior of the home and all that has been stored in it and keep it safe from the imprecations of a pagan world. The Hanukkah lights, on the other hand, argue for an open-door policy, for their function is pirsumei nissa, to illuminate the “street” or outside with the sanctity that issues from within. This collision on the threshold—whether to shut the doors and guard what we already have within, or to open the doors wide to allow us to share the blessings of Torah with the outside world—this clash of opposing tendencies is what creates within us that tension. It is only when we have the two mitzvot around us that we can properly weigh and measure and know when to open the doors to the outside world, to absorb from it what is good and true and beautiful, and when to shut the doors tight against the falsehood and profanation of an ungodly world and its nefarious influences.

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Festivals of Faith: Sukkot — The Illusions We Live By

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays



The Halakhah is generally rich in the use of illusions, and especially in its treatment of the laws of Sukkot. There is, for instance, the law of lavud. This means that even if there exist empty spaces in the sekhakh, or the covering of the sukkah, if these spaces are less than three tefahim (about nine inches), then we consider the empty space as if it did not exist but was covered by branches or other sekhakh. Lavud means that we accept the illusion that any distance less than three tefahim does not exist; it is as if it were attached.

Another example is the law of dofen akumah. This means that if four cubits or less of an invalid type of covering, or sekhakh, was placed on the roof of the sukkah contiguous to the wall, we do not regard it as invalid, thereby disqualifying the entire sekhakh, but rather imagine that it is as if the wall were bent over and inclined for that distance, thus causing us to regard the sukkah as kosher.

A third example would be that of tzurat ha-petah. This means that if a Jew does not have sufficient material to build the requisite number of walls, then it is sufficient to place two poles on either end and a beam across them. We consider this a tzurat ha-petah, the figure of a doorway, and imagine that the doorway constitutes both an entrance and a wall. We accept the illusion that this empty space is really a complete wall.

One of the greatest and most distinguished scholars and preachers of modern Israel, Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel z”l of Tel Aviv (in his famous Derashot el Ami), discovered a hint of this propensity for the use of illusion in sukkot in the Talmud’s statement concerning the nature of our dwelling in sukkot. The Torah teaches us ba-sukkot teshevu shiv‘at yamim, “you shall dwell in the sukkot for seven days” (Lev. 23:36). And the Talmud adds, teshevu ke-ein taduru—you shall “dwell” as if you truly “resided” in the sukkah (Sukkah 26a). We do not really change our address from home to sukkah; nevertheless, in our minds, in our practice, in our will, in our intentions, we dwell in the sukkah as if we really lived there. All of Sukkot is a tribute to the power of a noble illusion.

Thus, the Halakhah, as a Torat Hayyim, a Torah of Life, tells us something about the importance of illusion in daily life. Normally, we use the word “illusion” in a pejorative sense, as a term of derision, as something which is contrary to fact, to reality, to common sense. But my thesis this morning is that that is all wrong. In many of the most significant branches of human endeavor, we make use of illusion and could not get along without it. Thus, for instance, in law we use legal fictions—as, for example, when we consider a corporation not as a collection of many people, but as an individual, collective personality. In science, we abstract “ideal systems” from reality—and that is creating an illusion. The mathematician deals with such concepts as infinity and imaginary numbers. Philosophers speak of the philosophy of Als Ob, the philosophy of “as if.” Men of literature describe and criticize life and society by means of creative illusions.

Indeed, we live our regular lives by certain illusions—not only in the intellectual disciplines, such as law and science, but in the deepest recesses of our individual and ethnic consciousness. Without the proper illusions, life can become meaningless and a drudgery. The future is bleak, the past a confused jumble, and the present depressingly dull without the necessary illusions.

What we must know is this: that illusions are not opposed to fact. Illusions are what the facts add up to in the long run, what give us the ability to understand and interpret facts. Illusions are frequently more consonant with reality than narrow and isolated facts. Illusions are the framework of facts, that which gives them sense and meaning.

…What are some of the noble illusions that Judaism teaches? What are some of the outstanding examples of the principle of Sukkot that teshevu ke-ein taduru? One of them is the illusion that man is basically good, that, in the words of David, Va-tehasserehu me‘at me-elohim (Ps. 8:6), “he was created but little lower than the angels”; in other words, that man has a neshamah, a soul. The man who has a nose only for hard facts will not see a soul in the human personality; for this you must have an eye for larger illusions and a heart for great ideals. How silly was that Russian astronaut who, when he returned from orbit, reported that he had looked through the heavens and found no God. It is as childish as the sophomoric comment of the surgeon who announced that he had conducted a thorough search of the anatomy and discovered no soul. The best answer was provided by the wise man who replied that he had taken apart a violin and found no music! Of course, man has a neshamah; without it, his life is meaningless and makes no sense.

Or take the halakhic principle that every Jew has a hezkat kashrut—a presumption of being decent and honest. A narrow view of the facts will tell you that most people are unworthy and irresponsible. But without the illusion of man’s kashrut, there can be no trust, no loyalty, no faith. And therefore, there can be no transactions, no marriage, and no happiness. Teshevu ke-ein taduru— without the proper illusions, life is unlivable.

A narrow view of the facts will tell you that Jews do not constitute one people. The Yemenite and the American Jew, the Russian Jew and the Bene Israel of India, the German Jew and the Jew from China, are completely different types. What matters is that they share a common history or aspiration or faith. These things cannot be measured and established as hard facts. Yet Judaism accepts that all Jews are one people, that they constitute Keneset Yisra’el. As in the sukkah, we accept the principle of lavud: even if there are gaps, and discrepancies, and big holes, and lacunae of all kinds, we assume that they are solid, attached, covered up. The Jewish people is one people. It is by virtue of such illusions that history was turned and redirected, and the State of Israel created!

Finally, there is another law of Sukkot that beautifully expresses the noble idealism that informs the Jewish mentality in its use of illusion. The Halakhah states that if a man builds his sukkah and makes the walls from atzei asherah, from the wood of a tree which was used as an idol by idol-worshipers, then the sukkah is invalid. The reason given is, kattutei mikhatat shi‘ureih (see Sukkah 35a); since an idol must be destroyed, then we consider this wood as if it had been totally demolished, and therefore there is no shiur, and the wall is not big enough, since it does not even exist! Here is a heavy, solid wall before me—and the Halakhah says: it is nonexistent! What a marvelous expression of the great Jewish illusion that evil does not really exist, that all that is wicked and cruel and unseemly and anti-human can be considered unreal because, ultimately, it will be destroyed in the great triumph of the good over the evil and the holy over the profane and the pure over the defiled! The halakhic principle which accepts the illusion that idolatry is already nonexistent is the basis and expression for the great Jewish optimism that has kept us alive throughout the centuries. Teshevu ke-ein taduru!

The kabbalists of centuries ago devised a special recitation to be read before performing any mitzvah, such as sukkah or lulav. It reads: Yehi ratzon shetehei hashuvah mitzvah zo ke-illu kiyyamtihah be-khol perateha ve-dikdukeha, “May it be Thy will that this mitzvah which I am about to perform shall be considered in Your eyes as if I had observed it in all its details and particulars.” Indeed so! If we harbor the right illusions about life, if we live life according to the noblest ideals and observe them faithfully, then God will return the compliment, and accept the illusion ke-ilu kiyyamtiha, as if our noblest thoughts had been put into practice, as if our most cherished aspirations were realities, as if our errors and sins did not exist, as if our lives were lived on the highest level of humanity and Jewishness.

Teshevu ke-ein taduru—what a wonderful holiday is Sukkot, which teaches us this noble and beautiful and precious exchange of illusions! No wonder it is called zeman simhatenu, “the time of our happiness.” May it indeed continue to be so for us, for all Israel, and for all humanity.


The full excerpt can be found in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

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Yom Kippur: Hear, O Father

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays 

Festivals of Faith by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm
Festivals of Faith by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm

The Shema, the most celebrated and significant passage in all of Jewish literature, is one that we are required to pronounce twice every day. Yom Kippur is, of course, no exception. Yet those who are observant will have noticed that there is one slight difference between our recital of the Shema during the rest of the year and our reading of it on this holy day. Every other day of the year, we say, Shema Yisra’el Hashem Elokeinu Hashem ehad, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” And then, before the passage beginning Ve-ahavta— thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy might,” we recite be-lahash, in a soft undertone or whisper, the line Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom forever and ever.” On Yom Kippur, however, we do not confine ourselves to whispering the line Barukh shem kevod. Instead, we recite it be-kol ram, in a loud voice: “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”

Why this difference? Why on Yom Kippur do we give such loud and clear expression to a sentence which we otherwise whisper in the most subdued tones?

The answer I propose to you today is, I believe, one that has a real, relevant, and terribly important message for each of us. It goes back to the two sources of the Shema in the Jewish tradition.

The first source of the Shema is well known to us. It occurs in the Bible, and consists of the words spoken by Moses to his people, Israel, in one of his very last discourses with them. Hear, my people Israel, he tells them, there is only one God in the world. And he then immediately proceeds to tell them, Veahavta, you shall love this God with all your heart and soul and might. Moses did not mention the words Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed. They are not at all recorded in the Bible.

The second source is in the aggadic tradition of our people, and here the Shema is presented in a completely different setting. Our Sages relate a most interesting and moving scene (see Pesahim 56a and Midrash Aggadah [Buber ed.] Devarim 6). The Patriarch Jacob, whose name is also Israel, is on his deathbed. His twelve sons surround him, ready to bid farewell to their aged father as he is about to depart from this earth. It is a tender scene—but a disturbing one. For Jacob, or Israel, is not dying peacefully. He is tossing and turning restlessly. His face seems troubled, distraught. There is something on his mind that will not let him rest, that will not let him go down peacefully into his grave. “What troubles you, father?” the children ask. “What is it that causes you all this mental pain and anguish?” Jacob’s answer is straightforward. “My grandfather Abraham died leaving a good son—Isaac; but he also left a son by the name of Ishmael, who was a disgrace to him, a blot on his name. My father Isaac had two sons. I have followed in his ways; but he also left a son Esau, whose whole career did violence to all our father stood for and lived for. Now that I am about to die, I am worried—shema yesh pesul be-mittati. Perhaps I too am leaving a child who will rebel against God, who will offend all I have lived and died for.” When the twelve sons of Jacob, called Israel, heard what was troubling their father on his deathbed, they answered as in one voice and cried out, “Shema Yisra’el—hear, O Father Israel, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem ehad, the Lord you have served all your life, He is our God; the tradition you inherited and bequeathed to us is the one we shall live by and hand over to our children; we shall never leave your ways or abandon the Lord God in whose service you reared us, for the Lord is One!” When Israel—Jacob—heard this affirmation of his faith by all his children, when he realized that he would leave no pesul be-mitato, no unworthy issue behind him, that he would be able to die in peace and in serenity, he called out in deep gratitude: Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.”

This, then, is the second source of the Shema. And it is this source of the Shema where we do find mention of the passage Barukh shem kevod.

What is the difference between these two versions of the origin of Shema Yisra’el? The Shema of Moses is a command to a nation; that of Jacob’s children is a promise to a father. Moses’ Shema is a theological proposition; that of Jacob’s sons is a personal commitment. The first Shema is a declaration of ideology; the second is that which cements and unites a family. Moses recognized only one father—the Father in Heaven. Jacob’s sons realized that the sense of duty toward the Heavenly Father came from a sense of obligation and love for their earthly father, Israel. While the Shema of Moses is intellectual, a structure of the mind, that of Jacob’s sons is emotional and sentimental, stirring them to the very core of their being. In the Shema of Moses, the emphasis is on Hashem ehad, the Lord is One; in the Shema of the children of Father Israel, the stress is placed upon Hashem Elokeinu, the Lord is our God—the tradition will be continued, my father’s faith will not die with him. Moses’ Shema does not require a response; that of Jacob’s children intuitively evokes the joyous, even rapturous reaction of “thank God”—Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed.

All year long we pronounce the verse Barukh shem kevod softly, only be-lahash, in a whisper. During the year, it is the Shema of Moses that predominates, the Shema of the intellect, the ideological Shema which does not evoke any response of Barukh shem kevod. But on Yom Kippur, we abandon the Shema of Moses in favor of that of the sons of Israel. On the holiest day of the year, we are not satisfied with intellectual abstractions, with theological formulations. Today we rise and with full voice, be-kol ram, we proclaim for all the world to hear: “Shema Yisra’el, Hear father, hear mother, wherever you may be today, Hashem Elokeinu, your God is my God. No matter that sometimes I seem to have strayed from the path onto which you guided me, that I often seem to have abandoned your heritage and forsaken your faith and neglected the richness and beauty of the Jewish tradition you passed on to me—today I promise you, father, that Hashem Elokeinu, your faith is my faith, your tradition is my tradition, your God is my God, your Torah is my Torah.” Hashem ehad—this is the one Torah for which generations have lived and even given their lives, the One God whose overriding claim on our loyalties has been acknowledged by Jews throughout the ages. On Yom Kippur we return to our Father in Heaven via our fathers whom we respected and our mothers whom we loved on earth. This day our Shema must be more than a profession of faith; it must become a confession of fidelity, a declaration of loyalty. Kol Nidre may effectively release us from all personal vows and annul all oaths; but there is one promise, one commitment, too great and too deep, too terrible and too magnificent ever to be abrogated. It is the oath of Shema Yisra’el—Father, hear me now: your Lord is my God, the One God.

On this holy day, as we recall the memory of revered fathers and sweet, beloved mothers, it seems to me as if they and their parents, and all the generations who labored to bring us forth, stand breathlessly awaiting our move. I can see agony written across their foreheads and the pain of suspense in their eyes: shema yesh pesul be-mittati. Perhaps my children will forget me, my spirit, all I lived for and lived with. Perhaps in that strange new world called the space age they will ignore their responsibility to time, to their Jewish past and future; they will cut all ties to us and our Torah and tradition in favor of the glittering superficialities of their world. Perhaps their indifference to Torah will reflect disgrace and shame upon me. At this time, it becomes the duty of each of us to reassure them, so to speak, to make a promise to the past that we shall not forsake the future. We must say Shema Yisra’el not only as Moses said it, but with the intimacy, the personal fervor, the love and undying affection that Israel’s children said it to him. What greater Yizkor can there be: What greater memorial can anyone erect for his parents than to declare to them that there is something imperishable that has survived them in us! When we can say Shema in that way, with that deep love and emotion, then all our past arises as one to respond to our words: Barukh shem kevod malkhuto, blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom, not only for one year or one decade or one generation, but le-olam va-ed, forever and ever; for if such is the depth of a son’s and daughter’s loyalty, then the future of Torah, of Judaism, is assured. Thank God!

The full excerpt can be found in Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays

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Coming of Age: Parashat Ki Tetzei

Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow’s Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah


Parashat Ki Tetzei

By: Rabbi Moshe Krupka


Ahavat Hashem is a foundation of Yiddishkeit and especially meaningful for boys reaching the pivotal age of bar mitzvah, when a young man becomes responsible for everything he does.

Parashat Ki Tetzei begins, “When you go out to war against your enemies….”

The Midrash describes how Moshe Rabbenu drafted the most righteous Jewish citizens into the Jewish army as they prepared to do battle with Midyan.

“Twelve thousand went to war with Midyan, none of whom placed their tefillin shel rosh before their tefillin shel yad” (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:3).

This explanation seems perplexing. Could tefillin be the litmus test utilized in choosing the most appropriate warriors? Why is knowing that the shel yad is put on prior to the shel rosh significant? Why would this determine whether or not a soldier was fit to serve in the Jewish army?

To answer this question, we must understand the deeper meanings of tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. The tefillin shel rosh sit on a person’s head. They represent the brain, the human mind, the power to think and understand intellectually. Tefillin shel yad, on the other hand, sit on the forearm, facing the heart. They represent human emotion, the ability to feel and love. The tefillin shel yad are symbolic of the love and closeness we should feel for Hashem.

Thinking, learning, and understanding are all very important. But even more essential is the heart. Even more essential is Ahavat Hashem. Loving, fearing, and feeling close to Hashem are what lead a person to righteousness.

Similarly, consider the yom tov of Sukkot. There is the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah. However, what is the central theme of Sukkot? The Torah states, “ve-samachta be-chagecha—You shall rejoice on your festival.” Sukkot is not just about physically sitting in the sukkah. It is about how we feel when we fulfill the mitzvah. Are we simultaneously fulfilling “ve-samachta bechagecha”? Do we enjoy serving Hashem?

This is what the tefillin shel yad represent year-round. It is one thing to simply do the mitzvot. But there is another, significant level: feeling affection and devotion to Hashem.

As a bar mitzvah boy who has just begun to put on tefillin, this is a very valuable lesson for you. While it is vitally important for you to learn Hashem’s Torah and to develop your mind to its fullest potential, it is even more important that you remember the lesson of the midrash in Shir Ha-Shirim, the message of the tefillin shel yad. In order to genuinely serve Hashem, it is insufficient to only learn about His laws and commandments. You must also develop a love for Hashem, a love for His Torah, a love for His mitzvot. This is the key to righteousness.

If you want to enlist in the army of Hashem and be an honorable Jew who is fit for God’s Legion, you should always study Hashem’s Torah and observe His mitzvot. But in order to truly excel and grow, to serve Hashem in a meaningful way, you need Ahavat Hashem, feeling love and spiritual closeness to Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu.

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Parshat Shoftim: Stained Hands and Clouded Eyes

Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, by Rabbi Norman Lamm, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Derashot Ledorot--Deuteronomy

This week, after a good two-month vacation, our children will return to their classrooms and again continue the development of their minds and spirits. It will be a momentous occasion, no doubt, for the children themselves. These past few days they have probably been busy purchasing school supplies, arranging programs, discussing new teachers, and bubbling over with enthusiasm in anticipation of the new school year. I am sure that we all remember how we felt when we started our new terms back in elementary school. We felt as if we were setting out on a new path, full of hidden dangers and pleasant surprises, and we acted as if we expected a succession of mysteries and miracles at every step. Today’s children feel the same way about it. It is a challenge and an adventure.

But while our children are going to be busy being enthusiastic about a hundred and one things, let the parents not forget to take a long look at themselves and their progeny. On the first day of the term, ask yourself what progress your child’s teacher will report on the last day.

Will your boy or girl forge ahead, or remain just a dull average? Will he or she swim, or just float, carried by the educational tide? How many parents wonder why their child does no more than float in school, passive in his or her studies, going through school without school going through him or her. They are prone to blame it on their child’s IQ , and then discover that the child’s IQ hits 130. They blame the school or yeshiva, and then discover that their neighbor’s little boy attends the same school, nay – the same class – and is performing miracles in his work. And they are stumped. Why, after an extensive Jewish education, such parents might ask themselves, should my child remain apathetic to anything with Jewish content? What is it that the child lacks? And if the parents are intelligent people, they will ask not, “What does the child lack?” but, “What do we lack?” They lament that, “We have bought our children all the books they need, a Jewish encyclopedia and a Britannica, we send our children to the best schools in the city, give our children the best nourishment, and yet our children do not live up to our expectations.” But these intelligent parents, who paid so much attention to nourishment, have forgotten something of tremendous importance.

They have forgotten to breathe into their offspring’s lungs the life-sustaining air of courage; they have forgotten to inspire their children with the feeling that the Torah that they are learning is of terrific importance; they failed to impress upon the young minds that what they do and accomplish is of exceptional significance to both parents and everyone else as well. They have shipped the children off to school, shoved them out of their minds. In short, they failed to encourage their children.

How remarkably profound was the Bible’s understanding of the need for encouragement. In today’s sidra, we learn that if a corpse was found between two towns under mysterious circumstances, and the murderer is not known, then the courts would measure the distance to both villages. And the elders or representatives of that town or village nearest the place where the corpse was found had to perform a very strange, if not humiliating, ritual. They would take a calf upon whom a yoke had never been placed, bring it down to a brook near ground which had never been worked, and there they would decapitate the calf and wash their hands upon his carcass. And they would say, “Our hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see” (Deuteronomy 21:7). What strange words! What does “seeing” have to do with the guilt or innocence of a community and its leaders in a murder case? And if indeed these hands did not spill this blood, then why require the elders to undergo this strange, frightening, and suspicious ritual? Our Rabbis (Mishna Sota 9:6), anticipating that question, commented on the phrase in the verse “and our eyes did not see,” that “We accept moral responsibility because we failed to accompany him out of town.” How wise were our Sages! With their insight into human nature, they realized that this man had not successfully resisted his attacker because he left that town demoralized. The elders of the town failed to walk that man out onto the highway, they failed to encourage him on his way, they failed to make him realize that his presence in their community was important to them, and that his leaving saddened them. They simply did not take any notice of him. And it is courage, the knowledge of a man that he is backed by his fellows, that is necessary for a man to put up a fight against killers in the night who fall upon him with murder in their hearts. Without this encouragement, this knowledge that he means something to someone, a man’s resistance to his attacker is nil, whether he has eaten well or not, and he falls by the wayside, dead. And when a community has thus sinned against the lonely stranger in its midst, it must accept full moral guilt for his murder. And the elders must announce in shame, “These hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.” Do you know how the Rabbis would translate that? “No, we did not murder him with our very hands, but nevertheless we admit that our hands are stained with his blood, because our eyes did not see – we were blind to his existence, indifferent to him, we overlooked him, we failed to encourage him and inspire him with the dignity of being a man among men. Our hands are stained because our eyes were clouded!”

To those parents who will cry out against fate at the end of this school year that their children who have IQs above 130 and attend the best schools in New York are nevertheless dead in their spirit, that their souls are corpses, the Bible gives a high warning: Keep your eyes open and clear, not clouded. Inspire your children with the courage to take on a double program because it means so much, make them feel important and wanted. Take a long look at your children; don’t overlook them. Extend to them the courtesy of accompaniment; let them feel that you want their company because they want yours. Go with them to school some day and ask them what they expect to accomplish that day. Friday nights and Shabbat afternoons when you have an opportunity to eat your meal without hurry and rush, discuss with them the problems they discussed in school; respect their arguments instead of dismissing them or, contrariwise, acting as if all the world knew that. Keep your eyes open and clear, and your hands won’t be stained.

During the war, I received a letter from a soldier friend of mine who hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day, fought through France and went through the horrors of the Battle of the Bulge. That boy saw more of horror than a man double his age. Yet, he wrote to me, he did not falter for one moment; despite the cold and impersonal grinding of the war machine, he did not feel lonesome or dejected. For the one thing that had helped him most during those long months of fighting was the remembrance of his father who, seeing him off from New York and unable to speak because of emotion, put his hand on his son’s shoulder and held him strongly. His father’s hand on his shoulder is what kept his spirit and body alive in that hell called Europe. It was this accompaniment that assured his son’s survival. His hand on his son’s shoulder was a life-sustaining encouragement. That father’s hand was not stained with his son’s blood. There was no necessity for him to perform the humiliating ritual of raising his hands and exclaiming, “These hands did not spill this blood and our eyes did not see.”

My friends, the closets of the American Jewish community are full of corpses, skeletons of what once were or could have been good Jews. The words of the poet Bialik ring true: “The people are indeed a corpse, a corpse dead-heavy without end.” It was the great failure of the last generation to inspire their children with the courage of a Jewish education that is responsible for the ghosts of Jews who clamor in the ball parks on Saturday afternoons and the corpses of Jews who will eat just anyplace, from Times Square to Chinatown, corpses whose uniquely Jewishly blood has been drained from them right down to the last drop. It is for these derelicts of the spirit, Jews whose Jewishness died a premature death because they were not properly encouraged and inspired, that the Jewish community at large must answer. Right outside this synagogue there are young Jews and middle aged Jews and old Jews walking past without the least recognition that today is Shabbat. Who is it who will raise his hands and disclaim responsibility for this situation and say, “Our hands did not spill it?” Look again at those very same hands. They certainly are stained red with the blood of their Jewishness, because “our eyes did not see” – our eyes were clouded. We were blind to them when they were young and impressionable, we bought school supplies for them and filled their lunch baskets, but we failed to inspire them with our sincere interest in them; we gave them a sugar-daddy when what they wanted was a father. And then when they left their elementary schools we failed them again – we did not accompany them onto the great highway of life, we left them to fend for themselves as we overlooked their existence. We simply were not interested in anything beyond the immediate welfare of their bodies. George Bernard Shaw writes in his The Devil’s Disciple that “the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that is the essence of inhumanity.” Well, we are guilty of that inhumanity – we accept moral responsibility because we failed to accompany them out of town.

Before Jacob died, he blessed his son Judah saying, “May your teeth be whiter than milk” (Genesis 49:12). What a strange blessing! Surely our father Jacob did not mean to anticipate Colgate and Pepsodent! The Rabbis of the Talmud (Ketuvot 111b) explain, as they interpret this bizarre text, that he who makes his friend show the white of his teeth, that is – he who makes him smile, does him a greater good than he who provides him with milk. This was Judah’s blessing – that his smile encouraged his brothers and friends to smile, and that was worth more to them than all the milk on Borden’s farm. The Rabbis place greater emphasis on encouragement than on nourishment.

Your son and daughter will begin their school term this week. You will have provided them with all the physical necessities. But don’t forget to smile, to make them feel proud, to encourage them, to bolster their spirits. Keep your eyes open – and your hands clean.

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Parshat Re’eh: The Month of the Door

Excerpted from Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Deuteronomy, by Rabbi Norman Lamm, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Derashot Ledorot--Deuteronomy

The pilgrimages prescribed by our sidra for the three major festivals were no pleasure trip for the pilgrims of ancient Judea. Their journey had to be undertaken in days when there were unavailable not only first class hotels, but barely inns of any kind. The pilgrim had to sleep on the ground instead of his accustomed bed, scrounge for food, be deprived of all comfort and conveniences, whereas had he remained at home he could have lived his normal comfortable life. Nowhere in the Talmud do we find that any special arrangements were made to accommodate these pilgrims who came to perform this sublime commandment.

Yet, interestingly, in next week’s portion we find the description of another kind of traveler in the Holy Land. We are told that if a man murdered by accident, unwittingly, that we were to prepare for him a number of cities designated as “cities of refuge,” to which the murderer could flee and thereby escape the vengeance of the relatives of his victim. The Torah tell us that “you shall prepare the way” for the murderer (Deuteronomy 19:3). And the Mishna (Makkot 2:5) explains that the highways would be especially prepared throughout the country so that the man who murdered unwittingly would have no difficulty in making his way to the city of refuge. Throughout the country, at every crossroads, there were signs exclaiming “miklat, miklat,” i.e., “this way to the city of refuge.”

Thus, while the pilgrim had no signposts prepared for him to facilitate his journey to Jerusalem, the murderer had every consideration prepared for him in order to make his way to the city of refuge as quickly and easily as possible. What discrimination! Here the pilgrim must wander from place to place, inquire at the door of every village or hamlet: “Which way to Jerusalem?” – while the man who was a murderer would find his way with the greatest of ease.

Why this consideration for the murderer, and the apparent neglect of the pilgrim?

Permit me to commend to your attention an answer provided by one of the scholars of the Mussar movement. This discrimination was purposely legislated by the Rabbis, he maintains, for the purpose of chinukh, education. The Rabbis wanted to make sure that Jewish children in homes throughout the country would have every possible opportunity to meet with people who were decent and virtuous, and to minimize the opportunity to encounter people who had committed vicious crimes. Therefore they did not facilitate the way for the pilgrim, hoping that he would knock at every door along the way so that children should be able to meet people who are pilgrims, the people who are inspired to go to Jerusalem and sacrifice every comfort for it. In contrast, they wanted to make sure in the meantime that no Jewish child will meet with a rotze’ah, with a murderer. They therefore made sure that signs across the country would provide all the answers to the murderers’ questions, so that children would not be acquainted with that type of individual, and not have him for a sort of model whom a child might want to emulate.

Now this idea does not completely accord with contemporary principles and practice. We have somehow come to believe that in order for a child to receive a well-founded education, it is necessary for us to acquaint him with every sordid practice of contemporary society lest he grow up naïve and unknowing. We feel that a child must be acquainted with crime and degeneracy, and we import such models of behavior into our living rooms through television and radio, and we bring our children to the scenes of such negative ethical conduct in the movies and theaters.

According to this interpretation of our sidra, the reverse should be the case. We should not deny our children the knowledge of the presence of evil, but we ought to avoid any direct confrontation with it in their impressionable years.

Modern parents, unfortunately, do not always understand this. Many of us, motivated by genuine liberal instincts, oppose any censorship laws by government. This may be right or wrong, depending upon one’s political and social outlook. But certainly no parent should conclude that because government ought not to be given the power of censorship, that a parent too should never exercise censorship. If we want our children to grow up as decent citizens and good Jews, we must carefully control their diet not only in food but also in reading and entertainment. We must ease the way for that which is represented by the murderer to bypass our homes, whereas we must open our homes to that which is represented by the pilgrim.

This holds true not only for the home, the school, the camp, and leisure time for children, but for us as well. The Jewish heart and mind must be exposed to that which is valuable and creative and constructive, not the reverse. Wise human beings, from the Greek philosophers to the sages of Hasidism, have maintained that a person is where his thoughts are and that an individual becomes what he thinks. If our thoughts lie with the murderer, that will become the standard for our development; conversely, if our thoughts tend towards the pilgrim, then that represents the kind of persons we shall become.

We welcome, this week, the new month of Elul. During this month, when we recite the selichot prayers, we shall repeat, fairly constantly, one of them which proclaims: “We have come before You, O Lord, not with any special claim on your love, nor with any special record of good deeds. We knock on Your door like people who are poor and destitute.” The great teacher of Kabbala, R. Isaac Luria, has taught that the “poor” and the “destitute” are the symbols of the two months of Tammuz and Av, in which we fast and commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. If so, says the hasidic author of Benei Yisaskhar, then following this same prayer, the month of Elul must be symbolized by delet, the door. Thus, we come from the experience of “poor and destitute” (i.e., Tammuz and Av) to “knock on Your door” (Elul). This last month of the year, the month preceding Rosh HaShana, is symbolized by the door!

Indeed so! The door represents the entrance to our homes and our hearts; it is that which we may shut or open, depending upon whom we find at our doorsteps. Elul reminds us that we must use that door: to shut it in the face of the murderer, and to open it wide to welcome the pilgrim.

Indeed, God Himself demonstrated this. The first day of Elul is the time that Moses ascended Mount Sinai for the second time to receive the luchot, the Ten Commandments. Moses tarried there for forty days, and came down with the final and acceptable tablets on Yom Kippur. During this time, Moses prayed to God for forgiveness. And God closed the doors of Heaven on the sin of the Golden Calf, and opened them up to the petition of Moses and the teshuva, the repentance, of the people of Israel.

On these days of Elul, therefore, we remind ourselves about the doors of our homes and our very existence. And we turn to God and we pray to Him: “Open the doors of heaven – to our prayers.”



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Chet Hameraglim: A Tale of Two Sins

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbarco-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers 

This week we read Parashat Devarim which recounts the story of the spies, and precedes the fast of Tisha B’Av. In this excerpt from Unlocking the Torah Text: Bamidbar, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin discusses the link between the two similar fasts, Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur.  



The Jewish calendar contains two extraordinary fast days that are, at once, powerfully similar, yet vastly different.

These occasions, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, share fundamental characteristics as the only full twenty-five-hour fast days in Jewish tradition and as the only fasts that include the five halachic inuyim (afflictions): the prohibitions on eating and drinking, washing, anointing, the wearing of leather shoes and marital relations.

Yet as similar as these days are, they are also poles apart. Yom Kippur is a biblical fast day; Tisha B’Av, of rabbinic origin. Tisha B’Av remains immersed in sorrow while Yom Kippur is cautiously, solemnly optimistic.

As if to further highlight the connection and contrast between these two fast days, the calendar links them in a multi-week spiritual journey. Beginning with the three mournful weeks preceding Tisha B’Av, this passage continues through the Shiva D’nechemta, the seven weeks of consolation that lead to the high holidays, culminating with Yom Kippur.



Clearly, our tradition sees Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av as connected, but how? What can be learned from the comparison and contrast of these two fast days?




The answer may well emerge from the mists of history. Intriguingly, the rabbis draw yet another link between Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. Each of these occasions, they say, originates in a seminal sin committed at the dawn of Jewish history.


Yom Kippur is born as a result of the chet ha’egel, the sin of the golden calf.

In the shadow of Revelation at Mount Sinai, the nation, frightened by the specter of abandonment by Moshe, creates and worships a golden calf. Moshe, upon descending the mountain, witnesses the nation’s backsliding and smashes the divinely given Tablets of Testimony. God, upon forgiving the nation at Moshe’s behest, commands Moshe to once again ascend the mountain and receive a second set of tablets (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 2).

The rabbis relate that Moshe descends with the second tablets on Yom Kippur.This biblical fast day, the holiest day of the Jewish year, thus rises out of the forgiveness granted by God for the sin of the golden calf.


Tisha B’Av emerges as a consequence of the chet hameraglim, the sin of the spies.

As we have seen (see the two previous studies), a short time after their departure from Sinai, the Israelites find themselves at the southern border of the Promised Land of Canaan. Twelve spies are sent to observe the land and its inhabitants preparatory to the nation’s entry. Upon their return, ten of the twelve spies deliver a pessimistic report, citing the Israelites’ inability to conquer the land through battle. In reaction to the account of the spies, the nation despairs, weeping through the night and rising up in rebellion against Moshe and Aharon.

Based upon calendar computation, the rabbis maintain: “That very night [when the Israelites wept in response to the report of the spies] was the eve of Tisha B’Av. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He to them [the Israelites]: ‘You have cried for naught – and I shall establish for you crying across the generations.’ ”

Rooted in the nation’s despair over the report of the spies is the tragedy and sorrow that will visit their descendents, over and over again, throughout the ages, on the mournful day of Tisha B’Av.


Although the rabbis support their contentions concerning the origins of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av through calendar computation, their intended message obviously strikes deeper. There are no coincidences on the Jewish calendar. To the rabbinic mind, concrete philosophical bonds link these two fast days, respectively, to tragic transgressions deep in our nation’s past. What are these connecting links and how can they help deepen our understanding of two of the most important observances in Jewish tradition?


We have suggested in the past that the sin of the golden calf reflects the Israelites’ desperate desire for distance from the demands of an omnipotent God.

From the outset, the Israelites are unable and/or unwilling to face the new responsibilities thrust upon them at Sinai, and they respond with immediate retreat: “And the entire people saw the thunder and lightning and the sound of the shofar and a smoking mountain and they trembled and stood from afar. And they said to Moshe, ‘You speak with us and we will listen; and let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ ”

And when, forty days later, Moshe apparently fails to return from the summit of the mountain at the expected time, and the people face the fact that they will now be required to interact with God directly, without the benefit of Moshe as their intermediary, their desperate desire for distance from God becomes an overwhelming fear. The Israelites create a golden calf to take Moshe’s place, to stand between them and their Creator.

In the aftermath of the sin, after punishing those most directly involved, God moves to educate the nation to the ramifications of their crime. Threatening to distance Himself from the people, as per their expressed desire, He forces them to glimpse the emptiness that would result from such distance. The nation, in response, falls into mourning.

God thus reminds the Israelites of a fundamental truth that courses through all human relationships. While safety can be found in emotional distance, the desire for such distance produces a life of emptiness. Only those willing to risk the pain and heartache that can result from nearness to others will ultimately experience the potential beauty of friendship and love.

God’s message to the people in the aftermath of the chet ha’egel is powerful and clear: If I am absent from your lives you will be safe, as through distance you avoid the vulnerability that would accompany My close connection with you.

You will also miss out, however, on the grandeur that would have resulted from our closeness.


We can now begin to understand why the rabbis perceive a fundamental connection between the sin of the golden calf and Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Yom Kippur is the day when, yearly, we move to repair the inevitable distance that has developed between us and our Creator. We mourn our loss of perspective, explore our missteps and admit our failings. We atone for our consistent tendency to pull away from God through our practice of comfortable rather than confrontational Judaism (see Shmot: Ki Tissa 2, Points to Ponder). We pledge to move close again – close enough to allow divine law to challenge our lives and test our commitments.

The message of this holiest of days is clear. The distance that develops between man and God can be repaired. Just as God ultimately forgives the Jewish nation at Sinai and invites them, once again, fully into His presence; so, too, through the process of tshuva on Yom Kippur we can reconnect intimately with our Creator.


At the core of the chet hameraglim, on the other hand, lies a profoundly different failing, yielding a profoundly different divine response (see previous two studies).

Ultimately the spies and the nation are guilty of a loss of faith in themselves. Not only do they doubt God’s ability to bring them into the land, but, even more importantly, they lose trust in their own capacity for change. They see themselves still as the slaves who toiled under Egyptian rule, and they negate the transformative impact of all that has occurred during and after the Exodus.

To this failing, God responds with harsh judgment. Intergenerationally, the nation is forgiven and will ultimately enter the land. The generation of the Exodus, however, remains irredeemable. When man loses sight of his own majestic potential, he simply cannot achieve.


The connection drawn by rabbinic thought between the sin of the spies and the mournful day of Tisha B’Av now becomes abundantly clear.

In stark contrast to the ultimately optimistic, reparative day of Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av remains, each year, an occasion rooted in mourning and sorrow. We bemoan our own replication of the sin of the spies, our loss of personal and national vision, our inability to rise above our pettiness and spite, our failure to glimpse the majestic potential in others and in ourselves.

Because of these continued failings, Tisha B’Av rings, over and over again, to the divine decree that, according to the rabbis, was delivered as the Jews wept over the report of the spies: You have cried for naught, and I shall establish for you crying across the generations.


When you draw away from Me, God says on Yom Kippur, the anniversary of the chet ha’egel, our relationship can yet be repaired.

When you lose faith in yourselves, however, He decrees on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the chet hameraglim, you and your generation will fail to achieve your potential, and the realization of your dreams will be further delayed.


Points to Ponder

A strange liturgical anomaly emerges in light of the rabbinic association of the sin of the spies with Tisha B’Av and the sin of the golden calf with Yom Kippur.

Each year, a powerful and poignant body of prayers known as Selichot, Prayers of Forgiveness, is recited on the days leading to and during the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur).

Central to these prayers is a section containing Moshe’s plea to God for forgiveness: “Forgive please the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness and as You have borne this nation from Egypt until now.”

And God’s response: Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.”

The problem is, however, that this interchange is found in the Torah in conjunction with the sin of the spies, not the sin of the golden calf. Given the vastly different nature of these two fast days, why would our tradition choose a source connected to the origin of Tisha B’Av as a central piece of the Yom Kippur liturgy?

The answer may well lie in the universal application of God’s words in this interchange with Moshe (see Shelach 2).

Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.” My forgiveness, Moshe, is shaped by your own vision of the people’s potential. Given that your own words reflect recognition of their inability to change, My forgiveness will reflect that reality, as well.

Each year, as we approach the holiest season of our calendar, God turns to each of us and proclaims: Salachti ki’dvarecha, “I have forgiven, according to your words.” My judgment of you will be based upon your own vision of yourself. The higher you reach, the greater you see your own potential, the greater My capacity for forgiveness, the greater the promise for the coming year.

Each year, we, together with God, determine the parameters of God’s forgiveness.

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Parshat Masei — In Retrospect: A Troubling Travelogue

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar: An In-depth Journey into the Weekly Parsha


Parshat Masei, the final parsha in the book of Bamidbar, opens with a retrospective listing of the forty-two stations that marked the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings.


What is the purpose of this after-the-fact travelogue? Why is this dry, technical information included in the eternal Torah text?

What possible lessons can be derived from this forty-nine-sentence itinerary?



The severity of these questions is, apparently, so deeply felt by the Ibn Ezra that he feels compelled to offer a revolutionary suggestion. The inclusion of the itinerary in the Torah was not “God’s idea.” Commenting on the passage’s introductory statement, “And Moshe wrote their goings forth, stage by stage, by the commandment of the Lord,”the Ibn Ezra explains that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” refers to the travels themselves (and not to their recording in the text by Moshe).

Towards the end of the Israelites’ forty-year period of wilderness wandering, this scholar maintains, the Israelites encamp for a number of months in the plains of Moab, departing only upon Aharon’s death. During that time, apparently of his own volition and for his own unstated purposes, Moshe records in retrospect the details of the Israelites’ wilderness journeys, which had all taken place “by the commandment of the Lord.”


The vast majority of scholars, including the Rambanand the Abravanel,however, take serious issue with the Ibn Ezra’s approach. Moshe, these authorities maintain, would never have recorded this detailed travelogue in the Torah of his own initiative. The very idea that Moshe could independently amend the text undermines our understanding of the Torah as “God’s word.” Additionally, the Torah does not need to tell us that the Israelites’ wilderness journeys took place by God’s commandment. This fact has already been clearly established in the text (see Beha’alotcha 2).

These scholars insist, therefore, in direct opposition to the Ibn Ezra, that the Torah specifically informs us that Moshe recorded the itinerary at God’s behest. Representing this viewpoint, the Rambam asserts that the phrase “by the commandment of the Lord” is designed to emphasize the divine origin of a passage that we might have otherwise found “useless.”

Like every other section of the Torah, these scholars maintain, the retrospective travelogue at the beginning of Parshat Masei is part of God’s message to His people. Confronted with this puzzling textual passage, we are tasked to uncover its divinely determined purpose.


Rising to this challenge, the authorities suggest a number of approaches to this section of text.

To cite a few…

In an opinion quoted in Rashi, Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan notes that the recorded route attests to God’s benevolence even in the realm of punishment. Although God, in response to the sin of the spies, had condemned the nation to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites’ “wandering” was actually severely curtailed. Only forty-two stations are listed in the itinerary. Of these stations, fourteen served as stopping points during the first year after the Exodus, before the divine decree, while another eight stations were visited during the final year, before entry into the land. Over the span of thirty-eight years, therefore, a total of only twenty journeys took place. The Israelites’ wilderness experience was remarkably stable in spite of its tragic origins.

Like Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, the Ba’al Akeida discerns indications of God’s compassion within the retrospective itinerary. This scholar maintains, however, that the considerations described are specific, rather than general. Each station listed in the text references a particular divine act of kindness bestowed on the people, from the elaborate details of the Exodus to the many miracles that sustained the nation during its wanderings.

Going one step further, the Tosafists detect a halachic purpose to this section of text. Jewish law obligates an individual, upon encountering a location where divine miracles occurred, to recite the blessing “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who performed a miracle for my forebears at this place.”In order to facilitate the fulfillment of this obligation, the Torah now records the locations in the wilderness where such miracles transpired.

Moving in a totally different direction, the Sforno argues that the wilderness itinerary does not extol God’s allegiance to the Israelites but, instead, the Israelites’ allegiance to God. For four decades, the people traveled at God’s behest, through stark, barren terrain, moving from station to station without prior knowledge of their immediate destination. This loyalty to God’s wishes now earns the nation the right to enter the Promised Land.


The most direct explanation for the inclusion of the Israelites’ wilderness itinerary in the text, however, is suggested by the Rambam in his Guide to the Perplexed. The Rambam maintains that this passage plays a critical role in establishing the veracity of the Torah’s narrative. With the passage of time, the Rambam suggests, doubts could easily develop concerning the authenticity of the miracles that marked the nation’s travels:

Miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them, while coming generations, who know of them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue….

The greatest of the miracles described in the Law is the stay of the Israelites in the wilderness for forty years, sustained by the daily supply of [the heaven-sent] manna….

God, however, knew that, in the future, people might doubt the veracity of these miracles…they might think that the Israelites remained in the wilderness in a place not far from inhabited land, where it was possible to live [in the ordinary way]…or that they could plow, sow and reap, or live on vegetation [naturally growing along the route]; or that the manna came down regularly in those locations as an ordinary natural product; or that there were wells of water [along the route]….

In order to remove all these doubts, and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations [that marked the journey of the Israelites], so that the coming generations may see them and learn the greatness of the miracle[s] that enabled human beings to live in these places for forty years.

By carefully describing the route followed by the nation during their extended wilderness travels, a passage through barren wasteland that could only be survived through miraculous intervention, the Torah buttresses its own narrative concerning God’s miraculous care for the nation during their wilderness wanderings.


A striking observation offered by the Malbim grants a final perspective on the wilderness itinerary recorded at the beginning of Parshat Masei. This scholar notes that the parsha opens with the statement “These are the journeys of the children of Israel who went out of the land of Egypt according to their legions….”

As a rule, the Malbim maintains, a journey is defined by its destination, not by its point of departure. Why, then, does the Torah describe the Israelites’ journey by the fact that they “went out of the land of Egypt” and not as a journey “towards the land of Canaan.”

Incisively, the Malbim argues that the wilderness journey of the Israelites could not be defined as a journey towards Canaan. Arrival at the border of Canaan could have been, and initially had been, accomplished without passage along this tortuous route. Instead, the lengthy wilderness sojourn was specifically designed to “take the Israelites out of Egypt,” to purify the people from the defiling effects of centuries of servitude and immersion in Egyptian culture.

For this reason, He caused them [the Israelites] to wander in the wilderness; and they underwent numerous tribulations and were tested with numerous trials and experienced refinement after refinement, until they were purified and exchanged their “soiled garments” for “sanctified vestments” of pure and holy character….

Each step of the Israelites’ carefully recorded journey is designed to move the nation one step further from Egypt, to further complete their transformation from servile slaves into a nation worthy of its destiny. It is this journey of the spirit, described in a detailed itinerary as the book of Bamidbar begins to close, that defines the entire book in retrospect.