Tag Archives: Elul

Learning to Live

I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I’m swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I’m not sure any of this is for me!

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call “the all or nothing” syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there’s no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what’s the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!

That’s not the Jewish way!

Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what’s the matter? He says, I’m in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that’s going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

You say, that’s fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What’s the problem?

He says, you just don’t get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what’s out there?

You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven’t found yet? What you’ve got now is a gold mine!

That’s the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you’re not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don’t worry about what you can’t do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you’ve still struck eternal gold.

The best advice: Relax.

“Judaism: All Or Nothing?”
from Ask the Rabbi

Performing mitzvot or “Torah commandments” as such isn’t really the focus of most Christians. And on top of that, what the Rabbi seems to be saying in the above-quoted passage appears to contradict this:

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. –James 2:8-11 (ESV)

According to the traditional interpretation of this passage, to violate one commandment in the law is to violate them all. But since we are all human, sooner or later, we are all going to make a mistake. How could anyone obey all of the laws all of the time?

Christianity’s answer is to replace behavioral obedience to the law with the grace of Jesus Christ and thus, any of our mistakes are forgiven, as long as we repent, turn away from wrongdoing, and return to God.

Of course, if you keep reading James 2, you discover verses 14-17 in which he says that faith without works is dead, so it’s not a matter of doing away with the behaviors that are associated with a life of holiness.

So what is it? If we commit to the law but cannot keep all of it are we perpetually doomed to failure or are we commanded to perpetually try?

The Rabbi isn’t responding to a Christian’s question, though. There are scores of Jewish people who haven’t lived religious lives but who desire to come closer to God, especially in the month of Elul. But as the questioner admits, the number of mitzvot to learn is dizzying and the details associated with proper observance is beyond intimidating. How could anyone not only learn all of the commandments, but additionally, how modern halachah defines proper observance?

The Rabbi has a simple and surprising answer:

The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either “observant,” or “non-observant.” But that’s not true. In fact, here’s a secret:

Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.

That’s because certain mitzvot only women usually do – like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill – like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the “fast of the first-born” on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.

Actually, it’s not that surprising but then again, I don’t think it adequately answers the original question.

I have an answer of my own. Here’s a story.

Many years ago, I was at my local Reform shul. One of the Jewish members was telling his own story about observance. He had been an atheist for most of his life. He was also an educator and took annual trips to Israel for scholarly purposes. It was on one of those trips that he told a Rabbi that he wanted to live as a religious Jew. Just one problem. It was the same problem the questioner above has. There’s just so much to learn.

Here’s the Rabbi’s answer.

Pick just one mitzvot. It doesn’t matter which one. Let’s say it’s lighting the Shabbos candles. Get a siddur and learn the blessing. Every Erev Shabbat, say the blessing and light the candles. Do nothing else. Keep doing that on every Shabbat until you have learned the mitzvot well and are very comfortable performing it. Once you have achieved that level of competence, pick another mitzvot. It doesn’t matter which one. Learn to perform it until you are comfortable and competent at it. Continue adding mitzvot in this manner. It will take time, but as the months and years past, you will progressively learn to perform a great number of the mitzvot.

I reconstructed all that from memory, so I’m sure it’s not “word-for-word” accurate. But you get the idea.

But what does that have to do with James and with Christians. We don’t obey the mitzvot of Moses. We weren’t called to do so. After all, when Jesus gave his Jewish disciples the “great commission” to make disciples of the people of the nations, here’s what he said:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” –Matthew 28:18-20 (ESV)

Path of TorahNotice what Jesus didn’t say. He didn’t say to teach the disciples from the nations “to observe all that Moses has commanded you.” If Jesus wanted to have the Gentile disciples observe the Torah in an identical manner and for an identical purpose as the Jewish disciples, his message would have been different. It would have been much easier for him to tell the Jewish disciples to convert all Gentiles everywhere into Jews.

Galatians is Paul’s great cautionary tale against Gentile disciples converting to Judaism as a means to be justified before God. He said it would make the bloody, sacrificial death of the Master a waste of time and effort if they did so (see Galatians 2:21).

Paul went on in chapter 3 of his letter to explain that it is by faith and not merely the mechanical observance to the law that we Gentiles received the Spirit. In fact, everyone, Jew and Gentile, received the Spirit by faith, not by the law.

At Sinai, the Israelites agreed to do all that God would tell them to do (at the point when they agreed, the specifics of the Torah had not yet been given). They accepted God’s rule by faith and subsequently, God, through Moses, gave the Israelites the Torah. By faith, we accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and through him, we can come to God in a covenant relationship. But since we Gentiles among the body of believers were not at Sinai as were our Jewish brothers, what do we receive from God?

The Jews have the Spirit, just as we have, but they also have the Torah. Do we have the Torah?

Yes and no.

Naturally, this is just my opinion, but the “Torah” we have isn’t all that dissimilar from that of the Jews (and I know some Jewish and Christian readers may balk at this part). But consider the following.

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. –Mark 12:28-34 (ESV)

I know I tend to revisit this particular scripture with an almost annoying frequency, but it is one of the core teachings of our Master. He emphasizes that we are to love God and love other human beings above all other considerations. The process by which we do so may vary from person to person, but Matthew 25:31-46 gives us a pretty good idea of what Jesus is looking for in how we follow him.

Within myself, I have long since resolved the meaning of what Jesus intended for the disciples of the nations to learn. That’s a personal resolution, and I don’t expect anyone else to particularly agree with my conclusions. On the other hand, we have just a ton of examples of obedience to God as chronicled in the Bible. If you were a new Christian, what would you tackle first? Feeding a hungry person? Going to church every Sunday morning? Praying every night? There’s a lot to consider.

On the other hand, maybe even for we Christians, it’s just as simple as picking one thing, practicing it over and over, and getting good at it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Let’s say it’s praying to God every night before going to bed. Once you’re good at that, you can pick something else. Let’s say it’s donating to a charity. How about collecting canned goods in your home and every month, taking your collection down to the local food bank. Seems simple enough.

There are so many people out there who seem to think that serving God and obeying the mitzvot is this long, complicated, list of actions and behaviors. Maybe it is for them. I know it seems that way when we look at observant Jews. But no one obeys God perfectly or completely. No one performs literally every act of obedience that they can. I’m not suggesting that we should be lazy or to neglect doing what God wants us to do, but we can also give ourselves some time to adjust our lives and learn to be better people, better servants, and better adopted sons and daughters of the Most High God.

For Jews, the month of Elul is a time to prepare for the High Holidays and particularly for the day of judgment. It’s a time of deep spiritual introspection, repentance, and study. Jews renew old friendships, repair broken relationships, and perform many acts of kindness and charity. Maybe it’s a good month for the rest of us, the Gentile disciples of the Jewish Messiah King, to reconsider our own lives, to see where we have gotten things right and where we’ve fallen down face first in the mud.

If your life of faith has become cumbersome, complicated, and even overwhelming, maybe it’s time to step back and see what’s really important to do, and what you could set aside. Just decide what God thinks is important, maybe volunteering to visit sick people in the hospital, for example. Then arrange to do that (or something like that). Keep performing that mitzvot regularly. Learn to get good at it. Love God. Serve His purposes. Help other people.

If you do that, the rest will probably take care of itself.

Learn to live.

Getting Ready

TeshuvahRav used to say, “There is no eating or drinking in the World-to-Come…tzaddilkim sit with crowns on their heads and enjoy the glow of the Shechina.” -17a

Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch illustrated the lesson of this Gemara with the following parable. A man planned to move to America. In those days, the only way to go from Israel to America was by boat. The trip was too long for one excursion, so the boat first stopped in France for two weeks, as the crew prepared the ship for the longer leg of the journey across the Atlantic. The traveler did not know English nor French, and he wanted to prepare himself for the journey, so he began by teaching himself French. When he arrived in France for the two week stay, he began to enjoy conversing with the natives. After the two weeks elapsed, he once again joined the other passengers and crew for the rest of the trip. When the finally arrived in America, the man tried to use his new skill of speaking French, but no one understood him, and he also did not understand the English speakers. Upon observing this, one of the French travelers who was with him on the boat smirked and commented, “It seems quite foolish for you to have spent your time learning French, which you knew you would only use for a total of two weeks, instead of learning English which you knew you would need for the rest of your life!”

This pearl of wisdom in our Gemara which Rav was used to say taught this lesson. A person is in this world for seventy or so years. His permanent abode will be in the eternal world to come. There, the language spoken does not include mundane matters such as jealousy and hatred. Nor is the topic discussed involve eating or drinking. Yet, what do people spend their time doing in this world? They busy themselves becoming inundated with concerns which are of this world, which is only temporary. The language spoken in the World-to-Come is simply where “the tzaddikim sit with their crowns upon their heads, and they radiate in the glow of the Shechina.” When a person comes to the עולם האמת , he will have to explain the language he studied, and whether he is prepared to communicate as is done in the World-to-Come.

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“Preparing for the World-to-Come”
Berachos 17

Even though I may not comment or otherwise indicate my presence, I visit a fair number of “religious” blogs on a daily basis and sample their content. A significant number of them indulge in various controversies (think Titus 3:9) and debates that are almost always swept into virtual “black holes;” like immense gravity wells in space that swallow all light and life but return nothing.

It’s like the Jewish gentleman in the above-quoted parable who learned a “language” that would serve him for only two weeks and ignored the greater requirement of learning the “language” he would need for a lifetime. Now imagine learning that the debates and discussions we deem so important in the here and now aren’t what’s really important to God and to our fellow human beings in the long run.

Today is 1 Elul on the Jewish religious calendar. It is, as I previously mentioned, a month in which observant Jews (and perhaps the occasional Christian) all over the world prepare themselves for their most important annual encounter with God.

You can think of the month of Elul in terms of the life you lead. Jews use this entire month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but our lives, from birth to death, are also a time of preparation.

During Elul, Jews take a frank spiritual assessment of themselves, dedicate themselves to turning away from willful sin, give generously to charity, make increased efforts at Torah study, perform more frequent acts of lovingkindness, and diligently repair relationships that have been damaged. Imagine if all of us did that all of the time? Imagine if doing so was our highest priority?

If you return, O Israel … you shall return unto Me. –Jeremiah 4:1

Today is the first day of Elul, a period of time which is particularly propitious for teshuvah, for it precedes Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment.

Elul and ShofarThe Sages say that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul, form an acrostic for the verse in Song of Songs: I am devoted to my Lover and He is devoted to me (6:3). Song of Songs utilizes the relationship between a bridegroom and his betrothed to depict the relationship between God and Israel. Any separation between the two causes an intense longing for one another, an actual “lovesickness” (ibid. 2:5).

The love between God and Israel is unconditional. Even when Israel behaves in a manner that results in estrangement, that love is not diminished. Israel does not have to restore God’s love, because it is eternal, and His longing for Israel to return to Him is so intense that at the first sign that Israel is ready to abandon its errant ways that led to the estrangement, God will promptly embrace it.

Song of Songs depicts the suffering of Israel sustained at the hands of its enemies, and we can conclude that the Divine distress at this suffering of His beloved Israel is great. Teshuvah is a long process, but all that is needed for the restoration of the ultimate relationship is a beginning: a sincere regret for having deviated from His will, and a resolve to return.

Today I shall…

seek to restore my personal relationship with God by dedicating myself to teshuvah.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Elul 1”

Imagine taking the time during the month of Elul, but ultimately with the rest of your life, to restore your relationship with God and with all of the people around you. Now take that imagination and put it into action, turning thoughts and wishes into a tangible reality.

When Judgment is an Opportunity

Shortly, it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul (August 18th and 19th), the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This means that there is one month and counting to Rosh Hashanah (Sunday evening, September 16th). Many people might ask, “So, what?” or might think, “Thanks for the reminder to buy a brisket!” However, the answer to “So, what?” is that we have one month to prepare for Rosh Hashanah … and Yom Kippur. Why would one want to prepare for Rosh Hashanah? Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment when the Almighty decides “Life or death, sickness or health, poverty or wealth.” Does it make sense to prepare for a day of judgment?

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
from Shabbat Shalom Weekly for
Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) 5772

Good question. Actually, for most Christians, the only “Jewish holiday” most of us are aware of is Passover. The rest of the Jewish religious calendar is something of a mystery to us and therefore has no particular impact.

Except for those of us who are married to a Jewish spouse or have some other reason to be aware of the annual “lifecycle” of Jewish religious observance and faith.

Also, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are rather moot to most Christians because we were all “saved” when we became believers and confessed Christ. We were all forgiven of our sins and never once looked back or considered our past sinful lives.

More’s the pity.

But why would I say that? Shouldn’t a Christian celebrate and even revel in the fact that, from God’s point of view, our sins are as far away from us as “the east is from the west?” (Psalm 103:12)

Yes and no.

Please don’t get me wrong. Salvation from our former lives as slaves to our own personal wants and desires and reveling in our isolation from God is a tremendous thing and the cornerstone upon which our faith is built. But I sometimes think we Christians gain a little too much mileage from our salvation. I think the result is that we think too little of our sins, at least some of us, and don’t consider that even though we are disciples of Christ and sons and daughters of the Most High God, we’re not perfect.

Far from it.

What shall we conclude then? Do we have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin. As it is written:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” –Romans 3:9-12 (ESV)

OK, so we’re saved but not perfect. We have no righteousness of our own and we depend on the righteousness of Jesus in order to be reconciled with God. But what does that have to do with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The Jewish religious calendar is replete with times of preparation. Jews prepare themselves for their formal meeting times with God. Jews prepare for Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and of course, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But Jews formally meet with God every week on Shabbat and twice daily during formal prayer. And Jews prepare for each event, regardless of its scope and frequency.

What do Christians prepare for? The formality and august, immense, majesty of the Days of Awe seem to be without comparison. I’m not even sure if Christians approach Easter with the same solemn effort of preparation and anticipation (but it’s been a long time since I attended a church).

But maybe we should (after all, Easter comes only once a year). Maybe we should do something to remind ourselves of the price that Jesus paid so that the rest of us; the rest of the world could be redeemed. Maybe we should spend some time taking stock of ourselves, making an inventory of our spiritual lives, and determining where we have failed God in the various areas of our walk of faith.

This can include quiet introspection and prayer, but let’s have a look at what else Rabbi Packouz suggests (all this and more is at his Shabbat Shalom Weekly commentary):

  1. Take a spiritual accounting. Each day take at least 5 minutes to review your last year — a) your behavior with family, friends, associates and people you’ve interacted with b) your level of mitzvah observance.
  2. Attend a class or classes at a synagogue, Aish center, a yeshiva on how to prepare. Read articles on Aish.com and listen to world-class speakers on AishAudio.com.
  3. Study the Machzor (Rosh Hashanah prayer book) to know the order of the service and the meaning of the words and prayers. You can buy a copy of the The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, by Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf (possibly available at your local Jewish bookstore or at Amazon.com — about 26 left).
  4. Make sure that you have given enough tzedakah (charity) and have paid your pledges (One is supposed to give 10% of his net income). It says in the Machzor that three things break an evil decree — Teshuva (repentance), Tefilla (prayer) and Tzedakah (charity). Why not maximize your chance for a good decree?
  5. Think of (at least) one person you have wronged or feel badly towards — and correct the situation.
  6. Make a list of your goals for yourself and your family — what you want to work towards and pray for.
  7. Limit your pleasures — the amount of television, movies, music, food — do something different so that you take this preparation time seriously.
  8. Do an extra act of kindness — who needs your help? To whom can you make a difference?
  9. Read a book on character development — anything written by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin would be great!
  10. Ask a friend to tell you what you need to improve. A real friend will tell you … but in a nice way!

studying-talmudMany of these suggestions probably will seem strange or a poor fit for most Christians. But just look at the level of detail and organization that’s being suggested for Jews as they prepare for the single most holy time in their religious year. Imagine if we in the church were to go through such efforts in order to prepare for our own meeting with God.

I know that Christians and Jews differ on a fundamental level in how we see our service to God. For many Christians, service to God operates in an internal realm and is made up of faith, belief, and prayer. For most religious Jews, although those internal states are present, the main focus is behavioral, not conceptual. Giving to charity in preparation for a meeting with God is totally appropriate. So is taking a religious class, reading an inspirational book, studying relevant sections of the Torah, and reconciling with a friend from whom they have become estranged.

The month of Elul is an opportunity for Jews to review their lives and particularly their failings, and to generate efforts to make amends, to repair relationships, to turn away from sins, and to anticipate the future. In a month, Jews all over the world will approach the throne of God with fear, trembling, and rejoicing. Even on the Day of Judgment; on Yom Kippur, we can learn to dance with God, embracing His Awesome Holiness as both judge and teacher, knowing that we have prepared ourselves for the day of judgment and the day of forgiveness.

Did I say “we?”

The Days of Awe aren’t generally considered appropriate for Christians, but I don’t think it would actually hurt for us to accept Elul as a month of opportunity. Why can’t we use this time to prepare our hearts as well? Couldn’t just spending a little time learning about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur benefit us? Might we not learn to feel just a tad bit more compassion for Jewish people if we learned how they see the God of Abraham and anticipate the Messiah?

We all fail. We all have shortcomings, even the best of us. We can either let that stand or we can do something about it. We can either maintain a “status quo” relationship with God or we can challenge ourselves to draw closer to Him. But that means we’ll have to go through the humiliating and painful process of making a detailed examination of who we are and what we have done to wrong God and to wrong other human beings. We will have to commit ourselves to fixing those damaged and broken relationships, as long as it is within our power to do so. (Romans 12:18)

The month of Elul is the month of reckoning. In the material world, if a businessman is to conduct his affairs properly and with great profit, he must periodically take an accounting and correct any deficiencies… Likewise in the spiritual avoda of serving G-d. Throughout the year all Israel are occupied with Torah, Mitzvot and (developing and expressing) good traits. The month of Elul is the month of reckoning, when every Jew, each commensurate with his abilities, whether scholar or businessman, must make an accurate accounting in his soul of everything that occurred in the course of the year. Each must know the good qualities in his service of G-d and strengthen them; he must also be aware of the deficiencies in himself and in his service, and correct these. Through this excellent preparation, one merits a good and sweet year, materially and spiritually.

“Today’s Day”
Shabbat, Menachem Av 27, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Failure is wasted if you return only to the place from where you fell. If your plans fail, think bigger, aim higher.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Exploiting a Setback”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

There is no higher goal to aim for than God.

Many Christians believe that devout Jews approach the Days of Awe only with fear of judgment and the almost panicky desire to avoid punishment by “doing things,” to appease an angry God. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, acknowledging failures, confessing sins, and making amends is certainly very humbling and one should not approach an all-powerful God with a casual attitude, but (and my Jewish wife explained this part to me) this is also a wonderful opportunity. This is a wonderful opportunity for Jews to pick up what they’ve put off all year-long, to make their lives and the lives of others better, to improve their relationships, and to almost literally watch God punching the “reset” button on Jewish lives, making everything fresh and new.

While Christians (Jews, too) can do all these things at any time during the year, as human beings we tend to avoid difficult events and tasks. As I said before, the month of Elul is an opportunity to stop being lazy, to get into gear, and to make the effort to be better people that we’ve put off for so long. If this sounds like a terrific opportunity for Jewish people, why shouldn’t a few of us non-Jewish religious people take advantage of it, too?

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Standing Before God

Standing before GodNo moment in human history was as sad as the moment in which the Lord said to Moses, “and I will surely hide My face in that day on account of all the evil which they have done, because they have turned to other Gods (Deuteronomy 31:18)

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
God in Search of Man
Page 155

You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.Deuteronomy 29;1-3 (JPS Tanakh)

Faith is an act of the whole person, of mind, will, and heart. Faith is sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain and lose. -Heschel, page 154

That’s a terrifying thought. As the month of Elul wanes and the High Holidays approach, we seek to remove the burden of our sins from us and re-establish our connection with God and with our fellow human beings. To do this, we must connect to our faith, not as mere belief in the existence of God, but in the total knowledge and dedication that God exists and that He is alive and involved in the matters of mankind and in the lives of each of us individually. However our faith and understanding must transcend our own biases and personalities, for it is so easy to confuse our will with His will.

The thoughtless believes every word, but the prudent looks where he is going –Proverbs 14:15

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. –Acts 17:11

And why dost Thou permit faith to blend so easily with bigotry, arrogance, cruelty, folly, and superstition? -Heschel, page 155

The prophet Isaiah even lays this last question at the feet of God.

O Lord, why dost Thou make us err from thy ways and harden our heart, so that we fear Thee not? –Isaiah 63:17

Even when we seek God earnestly and with great energy, we often make the hideous mistake of substituting our personality flaws for His justice, mercy, and will. This is the reason that secular people turn away from God and claim that “religion” is the root cause of all evil acts in the world. It is exactly because, in our worst moments, we people of “faith” really are guilty of all that we are accused, including intolerance, bigotry, hatred, and violence. And we claim that all of this error and sin is in the Name of our God and not sprouting from our own faulty human reasoning and emotions.

God saw the truth and spoke it to Moses in the hours before the great Prophet’s death, as recorded in Torah Portion Vayeilech:

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.” Yet I will keep My countenance hidden on that day, because of all the evil they have done in turning to other gods. –Deuteronomy 31:16-18 (JPS Tanakh)

What a bitter epitaph to the life of the Prophet Moses, who had dedicated everything he was to the preservation of the Children of Israel, in obedience and devotion to the God of his fathers. How can we go on in the face of such disappointment and failure?

This is the certainty which overwhelms us in such moments: man lives not only in time and space but also in the dimension of God’s attentiveness. God is concern, not only power. God is He to whom we are accountable. -Heschel, page 158

And yet:

Blessed by GodMore particularly, the word nitzavim the core of the blessing given by G-d does not mean merely “standing.” It implies standing with power and strength, as reflected in the phrase: nitzav melech (I Kings 22:48. See Or HaTorah, Nitzavim, p. 1202.), “the deputy serving as king,” i.e., G-d’s blessing is that our stature will reflect the strength and confidence possessed by a king’s deputy.

This blessing enables us to proceed through each new year with unflinching power; no challenges will budge us from our commitment to the Torah and its mitzvos. On the contrary, we will “proceed from strength to strength” in our endeavor to spread G-dly light throughout the world.

What is the source of this strength? Immutable permanence is a Divine quality. As the prophet proclaims: “I, G-d, have not changed,” (Malachi 3:6) and our Rabbis explain that one of the basic tenets of our faith is that the Creator is unchanging; (See Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Vol. I, ch. 68, et al.) nothing in our world can effect a transition on His part. Nevertheless, G-d has also granted the potential for His unchanging firmness to be reflected in the conduct of mortal beings, for the soul which is granted to every person is “an actual part of G-d.” (Tanya, ch. 2) This inner G-dly core endows every individual with insurmountable resources of strength to continue his Divine service.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzvaim: Standing Before G-d
Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 398ff; Vol. XIX, p. 173ff

It is God’s blessing upon us that gives us the strength to respond to Him with unswerving faith and that “our stature will reflect the strength and confidence possessed by a king’s deputy.” We can only speculate who the “king’s deputy” is, although I have my own opinion on the matter. However, in our personal struggle to approach God and stand before the King, we must never forget that the battle does not belong to us only as individuals.

Only that which is good for all men is good for every man. No one is truly inspired for his own sake. He who is blessed, is a blessing for others.

There are many ways but only one goal. If there is one source of all, there must be one goal for all. The yearnings are our own, but the answer is His. -Heschel, page 162

And yet:

In moments of insight God addresses Himself to a single soul. -Heschel, page 163

We can only see the world from our own point of view, but God sees everything from everyone’s perspective. He knows our wants and needs as individuals and He also hears the cry of His united Creation. For a Jew, Heschel says that even “the individual who feels forsaken remembers Him as the God of his fathers.” But the rest of us who don’t share that history and lifeline, must also remember that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27). He created mankind, men and women, all of us in His own image. We are all His and in that, we can all be said to be “one”.

May our standing before G-d “as one” on Rosh HaShanah lead to a year of blessing for all mankind, in material and spiritual matters, including the ultimate blessing, the coming of Mashiach. -Rabbi Touger

As we watch the approach of this year’s end and another year beginning to dawn, may we know before whom we stand and have faith and trust that the strength we need to appear before the King, He has already granted us through His blessing, to the Jew and the Gentile alike.

May the Messiah come soon and in our days.

Good Shabbos.

Dark Descent

Dark DescentQuestion:

Everyone else has a great time celebrating their New Year’s Day. Why do we take ours so seriously? What’s this whole judgment deal? Why all the prayers? Can’t we just party?


If you would know the drama that’s going on, you would zip out of the wildest party to be there. Imagine the entire universe in reboot. Imagine a mega-surge of creative energy, enough to power the whole of reality for an entire year. Imagine a system loading parameters for every galaxy, star, planet, organism, cell, protein, molecule and atom over a 48-hour period, and you’re starting to get the idea. And you? You are adjusting the input at every step.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Why No Wild Party on Rosh Hashanah?”
The High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

That sounds encouraging but there’s catch. As part of the “reboot” process, we must face our past, confront all of the mistakes and errors we’ve committed over the past twelve months and, to the best of our ability, first make amends with everyone we have injured and only after that has been accomplished, make amends with God. That’s what the month of Elul is all about, and our time is almost gone. Elul ends at sundown on Wednesday, September 28th and Rosh Hashanah begins.

Elul does many things but one of its functions is to act as a gateway into a long descent. The descent is into who we are and how we have performed as servants of the Most High God. You might think of it as your annual review at work, for instance, where your performance, for good or for ill, is examined and the consequences of your behavior are laid out in front of you. This is the preparation for Rosh Hashanah and then, ten days later, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most holy day on the Jewish religious calendar. The day when you make the final descent into your soul, bring before the King all of who you are in humility and prayer, in fasting and repentance, and then rise and prepare for the coming year, dedicated to bringing better “fruits” to the altar of God.

But first things first.

“Rebbe, I am a sinner. I would like to return, to do teshuvah!” Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin looked at the man before him. He did not understand what the man wanted. “So why don’t you do teshuvah?”

“Rebbe, I do not know how!”

R. Israel retorted: “How did you know to sin?”

The remorseful sinner answered simply. “I acted, and then I realized that I had sinned.” “Well,” said the Rebbe, “the same applies to teshuvah, repent and the rest will follow of itself!”

-by J. Immanuel Schochet
“The Dynamics of Teshuvah”
The High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Sounds pretty simple, but as I mentioned in yesterday’s blog Failure to Escape, it’s not always easy to play the “get out of jail free” card. I wonder sometimes if it’s always possible.

People who have been abandoned or abused by a parent or spouse sometimes suffer with anxiety about their relationship with God. They might project their hurts and fears from human relationships onto their relationship with God. They fear that He will withdraw His love from them. Such a view of God makes a true faith relationship almost impossible. God wants His people to know that He will not fail us, nor will He abandon us.

The Weekly eDrash
Commentary on Torah Portion Nitzavim
“I Will Never Leave You”
First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ)

There are other reasons besides these that can damage a person’s ability to trust and to form intimate relationships, but the result can certainly be the same. People of faith tend to model their connection with God on their connections with other people. If a person has learned to trust other important relationships, chances are, that person will trust their relationship with God. If, for whatever reason, real or perceived, their trust is stunted and unhealthy, then their ability to trust God will be likewise.

Being able to walk willingly down into the abyss of your sin, your human frailty, and your woeful imperfections is extremely dependent on your ability to trust God to pull you back out again, rather than believing He will leave you to drown hopelessly in the dark.

How did you know how to sin? I just acted and then at some point, realized it was sin. How do I know how to make teshuvah? First, I must go to where my sin lives within me and face its ugliness. I must turn my back on it, as I would turn my back on a dangerous and violent animal. Then I must trust God to rescue me from who I am, who I have become before I’m torn apart, and to pull me back out into the light and into the frail possibility of being someone better than I was in the pit.

That part of Elul, the High Holidays, and Yom Kippur isn’t advertised prominently. I suspect that many people don’t even think about it in those terms. However, when you get to be a certain age, you start to review the past more carefully. You see the annual patterns of life. You see what changes year by year and what does not change. You see in which direction those things that do change travel. Depending on the view, you find reason for encouragement…or not.

DrowningIn Christianity, there isn’t any set of events that directly corresponds with the Jewish High Holidays. Forgiveness of sins is a one-time event. The price was paid with the death of Christ and you accept this “free gift” upon your profession of faith in the Savior and becoming “saved”. Why bother going through the ceremony year after year?

Except you don’t stop sinning after you become a Christian. Sometimes becoming “saved” is just the first step in a long, arduous process of cleaning up your life. Sometimes the process never ends. There are always flaws, always mistakes, always regrets. There is always an abyss into which you must descend if you ever expect to have a hope of being redeemed. Both Christianity and Judaism are very optimistic that you’ll always return unscathed thanks to Jesus (Christianity) or God (Judaism).

But there is always the inmate who chooses to stay in jail. There is always the prince who learns to assimilate into the peasants. There is always the danger of going down and not being able to get back up.

Someone, some circumstance, something will knock you down sooner or later. It always happens. And you get back up. And you get knocked down. And you get back up. And you get knocked down. And you…

As for the wicked man, if he should return from all his sins that he committed and guard all my decrees, and do justice and righteousness, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions which he committed will not be remembered against him….Do I then desire the death of the wicked, says G-d, the Eternal G-d, is it not rather his return from his ways, that he may live? –Ezekiel 18:21-23

That’s what’s at stake. Life itself.

Each one of us is both the sun and the moon.

The sun is constant—every day the same fiery ball rises in the sky. But the moon cycles through constant change—one day it is whole, then it wanes until it has disappeared altogether. Yet, then it is renewed, reborn out of nothingness.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
“Sun and Moon”

That’s the problem. God is constant and unchangeable. People are not. Any constancy we may possess for the good must come from God. It is not within us as people to do so.

From Rabbi Schochet again:

“This mitzvah which I command you this day is not beyond your reach nor is it far off…” Generally, this verse refers to the entire Torah. In context with the preceding passage it is also interpreted to refer specifically to the principle of teshuvah. “Even if your outcasts be in the outermost parts of Heaven” and you are under the power of the nations, you can yet return unto G-d and do “according to all that I command you this day.” For teshuvah “is not beyond reach nor is it far off,” but “it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”

And yet there are times when the Torah, teshuvah, and trusting in God regardless of the “vicissitudes of life”, seem as if they are beyond imagination, even though they may only be lying barely out of reach.

The road

The road is long and often, we travel in the dark.

The King is in the Field

The fieldsAs the month of “Divine Mercy and Forgiveness,” Elul is a most opportune time for teshuvah (“return” to G-d), prayer, charity, and increased Ahavat Yisrael (love for a fellow Jew) in the quest for self-improvement and coming closer to G-d. Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi likens the month of Elul to a time when “the king is in the field” and, in contrast to when he is in the royal palace, “everyone who so desires is permitted to meet him, and he receives them all with a cheerful countenance and shows a smiling face to them all.”

Elul Observances in a Nutshell

Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you. Pirkei Avot 1:3

My wife refers to the month of Elul and the High Holidays as an opportunity to “hit the reset button”. So many undesirable things seem to pile up in our lives over a twelve month period that Elul is a good opportunity to make a serious evaluation of who we are, what we’ve been doing, and if we have been behaving as the sort of person we are, or want to be.

I find it interesting that during Elul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi considers the King to be walking among His subjects. It reminds me of another King under somewhat similar circumstances:

“I dare say you love him not so ill, to wish him here
alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s
minds: methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable.”

-Henry V – Act 4, Scene 1
by William Shakespeare

While our King is readily apparent to us, like the case of King Henry, this was not always so. Shakespeare’s Henry disguised himself as a commoner and walked among this troops on the eve of battle, encouraging them. For many people today, our own King is among us but walks “anonymously”. He is not recognized in his “disguise” and he is seen instead to be a false Messiah, a false Prophet, and even a fictional character in a book of myths. Among the Jews, even today, we can think of him like Joseph, who in the guise of the Egyptian viceroy Zaphenath-Paneah was not recognized by his own brothers until such a time as when Joseph chose to reveal himself:

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence. –Genesis 45:1-3

Yet there will be a time when the King will return in power and all will know his name:

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of King and Lord of Lords. –Revelation 19:11-16

I said previously that the vast majority of Christians see no particular significance in Elul or the approach of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, since as we are taught, Christ paid the price for our sins once and for all. Still, if you’re human, you know there’s a difference between the price being paid and our living perfectly sinless lives in the wake of being “saved”. There is no one who is above bowing to the King and begging His forgiveness for the wrongs we have done and continue to do.

Elul and ShofarIt is true that our King is “closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24) and He is always accessible through prayer, but there will be a time when we are judged for what we have done and what we have failed to do in His Name. Elul is an annual opportunity to review who we are and what we need to do to be better servants of our Master and better sons and daughters of our Father. “Rabban Gamliel would say: Assume for yourself a master” (Pirkei Avot 1:16) and we have done so. Now it is time to heed our Master’s wishes.

Although it would be easy to misunderstand the events commemorated in Elul and the High Holidays themselves as terribly grim and fearful, it is actually a time of great joy and wonder. The King is among us. He desires that we draw near to Him. He wants none to perish (2 Peter 3:9) and to that end, he calls to each of us, especially now. Though, as Peter says, the Lord is not slow “but is patient toward you”, he is also merciful enough to build “reminders” into his calendar for us. Elul is one of the markers along the road cautioning us and encouraging us.

During Elul, observant Jews add Psalm 27 to their daily prayers and the first verse should tell us why:

The LORD is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid? –Psalm 27:1

Indeed, with the King walking among us, who should make us afraid?

During Elul, Jews often greet each other and bless each other by saying “Ketivah vachatimah tovah” which basically means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”

May it ever be so for this year and always.