Tag Archives: High Holidays

How I Won’t Be Observing Yom Kippur

One of my favorite stories is of the house painter who deeply regretted stealing from his clients by diluting the paint, but charging full price. He poured out his heart on Yom Kippur hoping for Divine direction. A booming voice comes down from Heaven and decrees — “Repaint, repaint … and thin no more!” Yom Kippur begins Friday evening, September 29th! (It is the ONLY fast day that is observed on a Shabbos.)

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the anniversary of the day Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai the second set of Ten Commandments. This signified that the Almighty forgave the Jewish people for the transgression of the Golden Calf. For all times this day was decreed to be a day of forgiveness for our mistakes. However, this refers to transgressions against the Almighty. Transgressions against our fellow human being require us to correct our mistakes and seek forgiveness. If one took from another person, it is not enough to regret and ask the Almighty for forgiveness; first, one must return what was taken and ask for forgiveness from the person and then ask for forgiveness from the Almighty.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Aish.com

In general, observant Noahides can (but are not required to) commemorate those Jewish festivals that in some way relate to Gentiles and the overall spiritual missions that G-d assigns for them. There are some of the Jewish festivals that Noahides have more of a connection to, and they can honor these as special days (for example, with prayers and selected Torah reading): for example, Rosh HaShanah (the annual Day of Judgment for all people), and Sukkot (the annual time of judgment for the rainfall that each nation will receive, which is also characterized by the themes of unity and joy).

But you should be aware that these days are not to be commemorated by Noahides in the same way that they are commanded to be fully observed by Jews. For instance, a Noahide should not refrain from normal activities on the Jewish holy days or Sabbath, and should not perform those Jewish commandments that are religious only, and have no practical benefit for Noahides (for example, waiving the four species of plants during the Festival of Sukkot, or fasting on Yom Kippur).

The Jewish festival days of Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, Yom Kippur, Purim and Shavuot have little relevance to Noahides, other than as reminders of constantly-relevant general Torah principles.

Taken from “Noahide Holidays” at AskNoah.org

With regard to Yom Kippur, which relates to the relationship between the Jews and G-d, Gentiles should not be concerned that they are lacking in any way in their opportunity at any time for successful repentance. The fact that only Jews were given Yom Kippur, the day that Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets of the Ten Commandments, should only be a positive influence, in that perhaps it may inspire a Gentile to do his or her own needed repentance on any day of the year.

Taken from “Asking G-d to forgive for breaking a Noahide Law: Does this relate to Yom Kippur?”
at AskNoah.org

As you can see I’ve been doing a little bit of reading, particularly with the High Holidays rapidly approaching. There’s no real template for how or if the “Judaically aware” Gentile disciple of Rav Yeshua should observe such events. Certainly we are not Jews and we are not Israel (yes, I’m going to be criticized for those statements I suppose), but it’s difficult to ignore such an august occasion, especially when one’s spouse is Jewish (though not particularly observant at present).

I borrowed some information from a Noahide site to gain some perspective, but I’m not convinced the Noahide makes a suitable model for people like me. They don’t take into account the blessings of the New Covenant being conferred upon us due to the merit and faithfulness of our Rav.

Yet what else is there?

I do take some comfort, especially at this time of my life, in the statement that Yom Kippur can be a reminder that I can sincerely repent before Hashem at any time at all (of course, Jewish people can too). I’m also glad the Orthodox Rabbis who administer AskNoah.org recognize that Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot have applications to both Israel and the nations, so in some manner or fashion, we can partake in those observances as well.

As with my last several blog posts here, I continue to state that what you get out of your relationship with the Almighty depends on what you’re looking for.

If you are an observant Jew, it seems that your praxis is well-defined, which is part of what “grinds the gears” of some “Messianic Gentiles,” since our model seems less distinct. Maybe that’s because it’s too easy to mistake form for substance.

I think some of Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, touched on how some Jews (perhaps converts to Judaism who had Yeshua-faith) mistook the mechanics of Torah observance for an actual relationship with Hashem. I’ve seen it in some Messianic and Hebrew Roots groups in the past.

It’s easy to get distracted by praxis unless you have the correct perspective.

If the High Holidays are to mean anything for the rest of us, I think it’s true that they can serve as a reminder that God is accessible to us too. He’s always intended that from the very beginning. We were never meant to be left out in the cold or to be considered “sloppy seconds”.

As time goes on and I attempt to do even such minor things as listen to Christian radio, I realize that I don’t have very much in common with the normative Christian church. However I’d be lying and a fool if I said that I had nothing in common at all.

The church is full of good people, faithful people, people who have repented and continue to sincerely repent and to walk before Hashem. They do much kindness, express compassion in word and deed, are at the forefront helping victims of Harvey and Irma, putting their time, money, and effort where others only put their mouths.

Whether you call yourself a Christian, Messianic, or anything else, that’s what really matters, how you live out your relationship with Hashem through your devotion to Rav Yeshua. That’s what we should take with us into the Holidays. That’s what we should always take with us everyday as we walk with God.

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The Unexpected Appearance of Rosh Hashanah

I never know from day to day if I’ll ever write here again, but something just happened that caught me completely by surprise and I think it’s relevant.

My wife said she’d be going to shul tonight. I knew the High Holidays were coming up, but for the first time in a long time, I haven’t been keeping tabs on the exact dates. I don’t regularly read my email updates from Aish or Chabad anymore. And (gasp) I’ve stopped regularly reading the Torah portion.

That last part was initially because between the gym, yard work, and my “honey do” list, I didn’t have a lot of free time on Saturday, and by the time I did, my brain was too fried to really get much out of study. Also, I’ve been doing a free-lance project that I try to cram into my weekends.

Anyway, for a variety of reasons I’ve stated in previous blogs, I’ve become increasingly disconnected from the world of Messianic Judaism or any Judaism for that matter.

I wish I could say I’ve become increasingly connected with God through some other avenue, but this is not the case. My vague plans for forging a more one-on-one relationship with God haven’t come to fruition, primarily because I find other things to do with my time.

But I have, to a large degree, ceased to employ Judaism in any form to be the interface or conduit between me and God. The Church convinced me that I don’t belong within traditional Christianity and I’ve gotten a creeping suspicion over the last months or maybe even years, that I’ve been fighting a losing battle in believing that, even as a “Noahide-style” Gentile, I had a place within Messianic Jewish (online or otherwise) community.

And so I now have the proof that it is possible for me to pull away. Actually, I have two proofs. The first is the increasingly long gaps between making one blog post to another here. The second, and this is very dramatic to me, is forgetting all about Rosh Hashanah.

I wouldn’t have noticed at all if my wife hadn’t mentioned it. In fact, she just walked out the door to leave for synagogue.

So what is my morning meditation if it isn’t found in this place anymore? The very last vestige of what I’m beginning to think of as my former life is that I still mentally recite the Modeh Ani blessing when I first wake up, thanking God for returning my life to me each morning.

Interestingly enough, it was this blessing that I based my very first blog post here upon.

Gratitude to God for waking up alive each morning. A basic awareness that my life and everything in it is dependant on God’s grace and mercy.

Tonight, my Jewish wife is going to synagogue. It’s Rosh Hashanah. That’s where a Jew belongs on the Jewish New Year. May God grant her a sweet and good life in the coming year. But that doesn’t mean it signifies any sort of new beginning for me…at least not anymore.

I have to admit that it probably was arrogant presumption on my part to believe it ever did.

Tomorrow is Monday. Time to hit the gym and then go to work. The reinvention of whatever I am is going slowly.

Forgivable

Yom-KippurThese were the days before Yom Kippur. I was lonely and couldn’t figure out why. The loneliness had been there for months.

Things were good with my wife and kids. I’d been on the phone with my sisters and in close contact with my friends.

So, what was the source of this loneliness?

I was missing G-d.

-Jay Litvin
“Forgiveness”
Commentary on Yom Kippur
Chabad.org

We all miss God sometimes, if we choose to have an awareness of God at all. We’re all afraid of God sometimes, if we choose to be aware that God is a righteous judge. For many religious Jewish people at this special time of year, emotions can run high. Minds and hearts are turned toward God in a way that doesn’t have any sort of comparison in the Christian world.

Most Christians have little regard for Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. We’ve been taught that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins and we are free from sin and death through his grace.

Does that mean Christians never get lonely and miss God? Does that means Christians can’t get angry at God?

As Yom Kippur drew close, I continued to wonder what was taking place between G-d and me. I worried that this day of prayer and fasting would be void of the usual connection that Yom Kippur brings.

And then in a flash I realized that I was angry at G-d. And had been for some time. I was angry about my disease and I was angry that I was not yet healed. I was angry about my pain. And I was angry at the disruption to my life, the fear, the worry and anxiety that my disease was causing my family and those who loved and cared about me. I was angry about the whole thing, and He, being the boss of everything that happens in the world, was responsible and to blame.

And so, I entered Yom Kippur angry at G-d.

Actually, Jay Litvin had a lot of reasons, at least from a human perspective, to be angry at God. I won’t reveal more until the end of this missive, but think about it. Have you ever been angry at God? Have you ever thought God treated you unfairly?

Nevermind that you know God is perfect, and righteous, and without sin, and cannot make a mistake, and cannot be unfair. Even the best of Fathers sometimes seems unfair to his children. So it is between us and God.

I once knew an elderly Jewish gentleman who was angry at God. He blamed God for the Holocaust. He blamed God for the execution of six-million Jews and the incredible torture of so many more who had survived. He was already in his 90s when I knew him and he said that when he died, he was going to confront God and give God a piece of his mind.

I know. It sounds ridiculous. But it also sounds very human. If you felt as if God had done you some wrong, could you learn to forgive God?

Forgive God?

I prayed for G-d’s forgiveness, and in my prayer book I read the words that promised His forgiveness. He would forgive me, I read, because that was His nature. He is a forgiver. He loves me. He wants me to be close to Him. And so He forgives me not for any reason, not because I deserve it, but simply because that is who He is. He is merciful and forgives and wipes the slate clean so that we — He and I — can be close again for the coming year.

I read these words, nice words, yet my anger remained.

Then I again remembered the email. In his cynicism, my friend had hit the mark: I needed to forgive G-d. I needed to rid myself of my anger and blame for the sickness He had given me. I needed to wipe the slate clean so that He and I could be close once again.

But how? On what basis should I forgive Him? If He was human, I could forgive Him for His imperfections, His fallibility, His pettiness, His upbringing, His fragility and vulnerability. I could try to put myself in His shoes, to understand His position. But He is G-d, perfect and complete! Acting with wisdom and intention. How could I forgive Him?!

ForgivenessBut wouldn’t it be an affront to God to even consider that He needed our forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances of our lives, regardless of our hardships, regardless of how we have suffered and how those we love have suffered? Isn’t God, regardless of what has ever happened to us, immune from being forgiven because He is perfect and His will is perfect?

But maybe none of that really matters to those of us “on the ground,” so to speak. God certainly understands how faulty we are and how screwed up our thoughts and feelings can be, especially when we’re under a lot of stress, a lot of pain, a lot of anguish, and a lot of grief.

In the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is expected that Jewish people will pay tremendous attention to how they’ve lived during the past year, recount any incident where they may have injured or offended someone, and then make every effort to make amends to those people, if at all possible.

Sometimes the human need in us to forgive means when we feel hurt and there’s no one else to be angry at, we get angry at God, and in that anger, we need to forgive Him. Even though God doesn’t really need our forgiveness. Even though on a cosmic scale, we understand that He hasn’t done anything wrong and, being God, that He can’t do anything wrong.

It helps us to forgive. It helps us to heal inside. It helps to heal our relationship with God. And out of that, our relationships with everyone else heal, too.

And in the last minutes of Yom Kippur, out of my unbearable loneliness and separation from G-d, I found my ability to forgive. I forgave simply so that we — G-d and I — could be close again. So that we would return to the unity that is meant to be between us. Out my love for Him, my need of Him, my inability to carry on without Him I found the capacity somewhere in me. I reached out to Him in forgiveness and in that moment the pain and blame began to recede.

For me, Yom Kippur has not ended. This forgiveness business is not so easy as to be learned and actualized in a day. My anger and resentment, frustration and intolerance still flare, still cause damage. On my bad days it is hard for me to accept all that is happening, changing, challenging my life. But some new dynamic has entered the process. A softening. An acceptance. A letting go. A…. forgiveness.

For, you see, the last thing I want during the fragility of this time in my life is to be separate from G-d or from those whom I love or from the rising sun or a star-filled night.

Yom Kippur is a gift. It’s God giving us the opportunity to repair the gaps in our lives that stand between us and the people we love. Through forgiveness and asking for forgiveness, we can repair what we have broken in the past year (or anytime in the past). We don’t have to be alone. If we feel alone, much of the time, no one is to blame except us. If we feel the absence of God, it is definitely because we have separated ourselves from Him.

candleGod gave Jay Litvin the gift of forgiveness on Yom Kippur. He forgave God and he repaired the rift between them. God came close to Jay again. Love makes people unforgettable. Love makes God unforgettable. But until we forgive, we remember not the love, but its absence and the pain it causes. Yom Kippur is a reminder. We can forgive at any time. We can stop the loneliness and isolation at any time.

Thankfully, G-d has provided me with the capacity to forgive and, now, in these days since Yom Kippur, he has provided me with the opportunity to reveal that forgiveness. He knows that both He and I, and all those that He and I love, will eventually, continuously do unforgivable things to each other. And despite the pain we will cause each other, we will need to forgive each other.

To not forgive would be an unbearable breach of the unity of creation.

Jay’s article, like Yom Kippur, is a gift. I didn’t realize how dear and precious a gift until I read the very end.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children.

This year, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday, September the 13th, and ends at sundown on Saturday the 14th. As the sun descends toward the western horizon late Saturday evening, will you know that you have been forgiven and that you have forgiven all others, especially God, with all your heart?

Rosh Hashanah: Are We Ready To Approach God?

The words we say are spoken in the heavens. And yet higher. For they are His words, bouncing back to Him.

On Rosh Hashanah, we say His words from His Torah recalling His affection for our world; He speaks them too, turning His attention back towards our earthly plane.

We cry out with all our essence in the sound of the shofar; He echos back, throwing all His essence inward towards His creation. Together, man and G‑d rebuild creation.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Cosmic Mirror”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Chabad.org

The process of Tikkun Olam or “Repairing the World” is well understood in Jewish thought and I’ve blogged on this topic many times before. I think it is a perfect way for both Jews and Christians to understand our relationship with God, especially as Rosh Hashanah is nearly upon us, and God has His “cosmic finger” poised over the universal “Reset button,” so to speak.

And yet, during the most holy time on the Jewish religious calendar, the world is a very troubled place. The U.S. Consulate in Libya was recently attacked and Egyptian protesters mounted an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. And while the nuclear threat Iran poses against Israel seems terribly imminent, the U.S. citizens and government largely oppose intervening to defend Israel.

Even within the community of faith in Christ, there are many different voices who actively oppose one another and malign fellow believers, even as God urges us to establish peace with our brother and the Messiah’s law requires that we love one another.

How can we say that we are “partnering” with God in repairing His Creation when we can’t even resolve simple disagreements between ourselves?

The person who is truly fortunate in this world is the one who has authentic trust in the Almighty. He is able to sustain a feeling of well-being when things go well as well as when things are challenging. He experiences a sense of well-being whether he has a lot or a little. He experiences this well-being whether people meet his expectations or whether they don’t. His well-being is constant, because his trust in the Almighty gives him the awareness that his life has a plan that is specially designed for his welfare. The nature of that plan becomes clearer all the time. The reality of what occurs in his life is what Hashem in His infinite wisdom knows is ultimately best for his unique spiritual needs.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Being Truly Fortunate, Daily Lift #575”
Aish.com

I’ve talked about trusting God before, but it’s a lesson that needs to be repeated since, after all, we human beings don’t trust each other very well, let alone an infinite and invisible God. How can we trust Him to provide us our every need when millions go hungry every day; when millions don’t even have access to clean drinking water; when millions are sick, starving, suffering under terrible oppression, raped, tortured, and murdered?

ForgivenessYet we people of faith who live comfortably in the United States or other well-fed Western nations, argue about our rights and our theologies and our doctrines while our stomachs are full, our homes are adequately warmed or cooled, we drive to and from our jobs in cars, and no one threatens to kill us because of the God we claim as our own.

Rabbi Freeman describes God and Heaven as a sort of “mirror” which reflects the holiness of the words of Torah back upon the faithful ones who utter them in the synagogues during these special “Days of Awe.” I’d like to suggest that God is also a mirror, not just of our holiness, but for everything else that we are, including the ugliness of our greed, selfishness, narcissism, envy, and hypocrisy. Dream not of today and your comforts, pleasures, and desires, but instead stare into that mirror and realize, like the beautiful and self-indulgent Dorian Gray, there is a consequence for every unkind word we speak, for every vengeful thought we allow to be expressed within us, for every time we seek our needs at the expense of another.

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5 (ESV)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

John 21:15-19 (ESV)

If I were to reword the last set of statements from the Master and address them toward all of us, I might say, “Disciples of the Jewish Messiah, do you love me more than your own theological baloney and self-serving doctrines?”

I wonder what we would answer if he caught us in one of the recent blogosphere “debates” arguing over which theology of ours is the “greatest” and he chastised us all for our unloving attitudes and lack of respect for one another?

For many Christians, Rosh Hashanah is just another day in the life and it does not register on the calendars of most churches and believers in Jesus. But for those of us among the nations who feel somehow connected to the “Jewishness” of Jesus and seek an affinity with the origins of our faith, we should be paying attention to God and our own frailty, not to our rights and our wants. We should be intensely aware that Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown this coming Sunday, and an accounting will be asked of us by God. God will ask us to explain why we failed Him so many times over the course of the year. He will not ask us our opinion of why we believe someone else we don’t like may have failed God. Pay attention to your own eyes and let God take care of the splinter in your brother’s eye.

With such an awesome and majestic encounter before us, how should we be preparing our spirits to enter the Presence of the King? We’ve had an entire month to soften our hearts toward God and our fellow human being. Are we ready or have we been wasting our time on futile pursuits?

God is waiting for us. How shall we approach Him?

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
Chabad.org

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.

Shoftim: A Sanctuary in Time and Space

MourningYou shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself at all your city gates that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.Deuteronomy 16:18

On the personal level, “your gates” refers to the seven sensory gates of the small city that is the human body, its seven points of contact with the outside world. A person should appoint mental “judges and law-enforcers” over his eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth, to judge, weigh and filter the desirable and constructive stimuli from the negative and destructive ones.

-Rabbi Shabtai Hakohen (the “Shach”)

In the Torah section of Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9) we read of the cities of refuge, to which a man who had killed accidentally could flee, finding sanctuary and atonement. The chassidic masters note that Shoftim is always read in the month of Elul—for Elul is, in time, what the cities of refuge were in space. It is a month of sanctuary and repentance, a protected time in which a person can turn from the shortcomings of his past and dedicate himself to a new and sanctified future.

-by Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks
From Torah Studies (Kehot 1986), an adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s talks
“The Judge and the Refugee”
Chabad.org

What do the cities of refuge, described in this week’s Torah Portion and the month of Elul have in common? In a sense, as Rabbi Sacks describes, they are both sanctuaries. They provide us with a place to be safe from the consequences of our sins and an opportunity to reflect, experience true regret over our failures to obey God, and to repent by returning to Him and making amends.

Rabbi Sacks points out that although Judges and Officers were appointed to any place where Jews might live, only is the Land of Israel were there cities of refuge. If you inadvertently caused someone’s death in the diaspora, you would have a long trip to find refuge while avoiding the “avenger of the blood”.

Sifri interprets the opening verse of our Parshah, “You shall set judges and officers in all your gates,” to apply to “all your dwelling places,” even those outside Israel. It then continues: One might think that cities of refuge were also to exist outside the land of Israel. Therefore the Torah uses the restrictive expression “these are the cities of refuge” to indicate that they were to be provided only within Israel.

Nonetheless, Sifri says that someone who committed accidental homicide outside the land of Israel and fled to one of the cities of refuge would be granted sanctuary there. It was the cities themselves, not the people they protected, that were confined to the land of Israel.

This seems more than a little unfair for, according to Rabbi Sacks, a Jew living outside of the holiness of Israel was more prone to sin and therefore, in much greater need of access to a refuge. Nevertheless, this was the command of God. What meaning can we take from such an arrangement?

This is the deeper significance of the law that the city of refuge is found only in the land of Israel. For a man could not atone while clinging to the environment which led him to sin. He might feel remorse, but he would not have taken the decisive step away from his past. For this, he had to escape to the “land of Israel,” i.e., to holiness. There, on its sanctified earth, his commitment to a better future could have substance.

Setting aside the literal meaning of this Torah for a moment, we find that when we fall into sin, we cannot seek a solution in the environment that lead to and nurtured sin. It would be like an alcoholic seeking sobriety in a bar or a thief trying to repent while left alone in a bank vault full of loose cash. To truly make teshuvah, one must enter into a state of holiness; a personal “Land of Israel”.

Elul is called the month of preparation. To quote Rabbi Joshua Brumbach:

Elul…is the month preceding Tishrei – the month the High Holidays fall in. Traditionally it is known as a month of preparation. This preparation, called Cheshbon HaNefesh, is a time we begin to take an accounting of our soul. We recall our thoughts and actions over the past year and begin to seek t’shuvah (repentance) for those things, and with those we may have wronged.

One does not face the Throne of God lightly, particularly when He opens His books and dispenses judgments for your deeds. When preparing for an audience with the King, it is best to take as much time as you need to become ready to enter into His majestic and fearful presence. But how can any man become worthy to enter into the Courts of God?

…as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one”. –Romans 3:10

How dare we even hope to enter into a state where we could possibly be forgiven by God? And yet we know that God does not desire that any should perish, “but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Elul is a refuge provided by God whereby we can have the opportunity to prepare, to reflect, to make amends for our wrongdoing, and to cleanse ourselves.

For Christians, all of these preparations and the events of the High Holidays themselves aren’t thought to be particularly significant. After all, through the blood of Jesus, we have been cleansed of our sins once and for all. Why do we need to go through an annual cycle of repentance such as the Jews do? Our salvation is assured.

But wait!

ElulDoes that mean, once forgiven and saved, a Christian never, ever sins? Well…no. Oh. Then what do we do about it? The answer is probably to keep our “list of sins short”, and to approach God in trembling prayer and beg for His forgiveness through Jesus. I hope we all do that. But aren’t there those lingering sins, those habitual faults we tend to brush aside and (deliberately) overlook? Aren’t we all human? Don’t we sometimes leave things in our lives undone for months or even years at a time?

There’s no reason why we too can’t take advantage of an opportunity God offered to the Children of Israel thousands of years ago. We can enter into a sanctuary of the spirit, we can take the time to seriously explore our unrepented sins, our hidden and shameful faults, and prepare our souls for the act of total rejection of our errors and completely return to Him.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:4, it states, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place. Fortunately, we have an intecessor and a High Priest who has stood in our place.

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. –Hebrews 4:15

That should wipe away all of our excuses. Like the previous example of the Jewish man in the diaspora, sin has called and we have answered. Now we are desperate to return to holiness and to God, but like the Jewish traveler, we must journey long, we must escape the place of our sin. We must strive to return to where we can be safe and secure in time and space to delve into the depths of who we are and explore the wine-dark abyss. It is only there that we can see the repulsiveness of our sins, be repelled by our acts of rebellion, cry out in mercy to God, and as a prodigal son, return to him expecting nothing, and yet receiving everything from our Father.

A refuge is a place to which one flees—that is, where one lays aside one’s past and makes a new home. Elul is the sublimation of the past for the sake of a better future. And it is the necessary preparation for the blessings of Rosh Hashanah, the promise of plenty and fulfillment in the year to come.

I’m taking a small break from writing “morning meditations” to do some traveling. I’m not sure what sort of Internet access I’ll have, but definitely I’ll be back online and writing sometime early next week (sooner if I can manage it).

Blessings.