Friday, October 3, 2014

Kol Nidrei: A Strange Beginning

We begin this holiday with a strange prayer. It concerns vows that we have illegitimately made and wish to annul. Over a thousand years ago in some of the siddurim published we find this prayer which when adorned with this hauntingly beautiful tune has become a mainstay of the Yom Kippur service in all denominations despite objections over the years.

The prayer is based on a section in the Torah, which speaks of the importance of our word—if we promise, we fulfill. But if there are special circumstances which prevent you from fulfilling this vow, you may under certain conditions, annul that vow.

We want to come to God on this day pure of blemished hearts, without unfinished business and tabula rasa (clean slate). Therefore we invoke the annulment of vows to intensely prepare ourselves…

Already at the turn of the millennium certain sects were uncomfortable with the idea that the Jewish way to begin the holiday is by revoking their previous vows. The Karaites said this was shameful and while the rabbis explained that this does not at all refer to obligations made to others but only to oneself, other rabbis called Geonim (9th and 10th centuries) tried to downplay the recitation of this prayer.

The popular reason this prayer became widespread has to do with Jews in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries during the inquisition. Jews who lived like Christians and hid their secret Jewish beliefs suffered the guilt of their worshiping idolatry throughout the year.

Imagine living a lie, hiding your deepest secrets and only divulging them to God once a year, in a clandestine service in perilous conditions. All the lies pile up, your essence changes, you become another and only a faint spark represents the real you, the pintele yid, the pure unadulterated soul.

[I didn’t have to imagine that this week; living and working in Poland provides me with countless examples of real, modern day, ‘hidden Jews’. I participated in an interview of a remarkable man who lived this very experience. He and his family were saved by a Priest, who forged papers for them, turning them into good Aryan citizens. After the war, he managed to live a very productive life and today, at 83 years young, he is very active and was ready to spend hours with us, teaching us about his inspiring life. His Jewishness he expressed in more cultural ways and a strong connection to Israel but when I invited him for the meal before Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei he said he is coming!]

Perhaps, though, this can be seen as a metaphor of our own ‘hidden lives’, the pure soul within each of us that we often hide to the outside world. Throughout our year we hide or cover up our pure soul, which is struggling to emerge. We serve our bodies, our desires and our physical needs to the expense of our spirits. In effect, we come to the holiest day with an unclean slate, sins un-repented for, character traits stained. We confess that our word, which we promised ourselves to fulfill last Yom Kippur has been violated.

For these and many more reasons we reject the protests against removing this prayer and begin our holiest of days with a chant of Kol Nidrei--quietly, humbly, but then louder and louder until we shout out to God and to ourselves that this year we will truly find our hidden souls, our pure spirits.

I have been very busy over the past month teaching Torah in Poland to many different groups. Coming off of the highly successful Torah lectures during the Jewish Festival I embarked on a year-long presentation called "The 24 Books of Avi", each class covering the major themes of one book of Tanach. Last class over 50 people attended!

As my Polish improves (thanks to my wonderful teacher Marlgozata Pytel) I am able to spend more time with the seniors conversing in their language and teaching Torah on their level.

Before each holiday we have a general lecture about the themes in the upcoming festival. My Rosh Hashana lecture titled "will the real Rosh Hashana please stand up!", was received by around 45 people at the JCC.

I am also invited to lecture on behalf of the Chief Rabbi in many locations in Lower Poland (Małopolska). Last week I was invited to Nowy Sacz, to lecture on the High Holidays. The thirst of the Nowy Sacz community (Not Jewish) was remarkable. I blew the shofar and explained to them about some of the practices.

Finally, I had a chance to meet with some fascinating people including Dr. Viktor Bodnar and hear his story of heroism, courage and survival.

These and other people inspire us to realize that the glorious story of the Jewish people marches on despite trials and tribulations, ultimately delivering a message of promise and hope.

Gmar chatima tova.

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Time/Space Fusion

What’s the connection between the Mishkan and Shabbat? What is the relationship between the Synagogue and the days set aside to come and pray in the Synagogue? This question comes to the fore quite shockingly in this week’s parsha. The Parsha is clearly about one theme—the building of the Mishkan. Each verse focuses on some aspect of the preparation and/or the implementation of the construction of the Mishkan.

It is therefore odd to see one verse which stands out starkly to the rest of the parsha, and at the beginning of the parsha no less.

“And Moses assembled the entire congregation and said to them, these are the things that God has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done but on the seventh you shall have a day of holiness, a Shabbat for God, anyone who works will die. Do not light a fire on the Shabbat day. And Moses spoke to the entire congregation saying this is what God has commanded you to do. Take a voluntary offering for God, everyone with a generous heart should bring it, the offering for God, gold silver and copper… All the skilled of heart should come and make everything God commanded: the sanctuary, its tent, and its cover; its clasps, and its boards; its bars, pillars, and bases. (Translation by Rabbi Y. Henkin)”

As I said, the rest of the parsha details the laws concerning the construction of the Mishkan, and yet the initial statement from God pertains to keeping the Shabbat, why?

The Talmud (Yevamot 6b) learns a fundamental principle from the fact that Shabbat is presented first. It comes to teach us that though the building of the Mishkan is paramount, it does not preclude the observance of Shabbat. Indeed, no work on the Mishkan took place on Shabbat. Moreover, the definition of ‘melacha’ and the delineation of 39 categories of ‘melacha’ all relate to the ‘melacha’ used in order to build the Miskhan—sewing, writing, tying, building, tracing, erasing, extinguishing, etc.

Clearly the connection between melacha and the Tabernacle stems from these verses. However, is this the only reason behind the almost intrusive Shabbat verses in a Temple parsha? Surely the Torah could have positioned the verses about the significance of Shabbat somewhere else in the parsha other than front and center!

Let us recall the pitfalls involved in building a Temple whereby God would dwell. There are two concerns: if you wanted to find God, He would be in the (confined to the) Temple. One might walk away with the erroneous perception that God is found in Temple, and hence engage in a split-personality Judaism. When in the Temple, we cover our heads, pray, don’t gossip, are respectful of others, have faith in God, but when we leave at the end of service, we leave the practices behind with the head coverings.

Comes along the Torah to teach us that first and foremost today is Shabbat. And it is Shabbat from Friday evening at sunset, until Saturday night when the stars come out. It is Shabbat at shul, at our homes, on the roads, in the air, in our kishkas.

Shabbat is not about a place but a time; we do not look for it somewhere, we feel it every week. God commands Shabbat before Adam, before the Ten Commandments, and before the Mishkan. On Shabbat we are not forced to go and find God, he is with us when we light Friday night candles, until the Havdalah candle.

There is a question though. What happens when Shabbat is over? When the time is up? Is our Godly experience over too? The answer is, for this we have the Temple. It is a physical place, it is always there, it is tangible. The Mishkan complements the Shabbat, Shabbat complements the Mishkan. The two together, the time in Judaism and the space provide for us the necessary ingredients in seeing God in our everyday lives.

We Jews recognize the religious value of time and space. Of those special days in our Jewish calendar as well as our Shuls, Schools, Mikvahs, Jewish Homes, and all the other places where our Jewishness can radiate.

Let us hope that we never forget the message that Shabbat teaches the Mishkan in our Parsha. Let us always cherish those holy times and those sanctified places.

Friday, January 10, 2014

One Moment--אז

Triumphantly marching out of Egypt, the children of Israel set their eyes on a new future, as they follow their leader, Moses, into the desert. The drama of פרשת בשלח builds up like a thriller, with פרעה, still suffering from his loss, mounting his chariot to chase his escaped slaves. בני ישראל, looking ahead, see only a blue sea in the distance; turning around, though, they witness the approaching Egyptian army. Panic pervades the camp. Screaming to משה and God at the same time, they ask for a sign not unlike the one they had seen in מצרים, and suddenly the sea splits before them. As the stream of Israelites pass through to safety, they turn around once again, but this time to enjoy their enemy drowning in the Sea "סוס ורוכבו רמה בים".

As בני ישראל finally breathe the new air of a free people, they automatically begin to sing a song of praise to their savior; the תורה, though, chooses a strange word to introduce this שירה - "ישיר משה 'אז' ". 'Then', Moses and the children of Israel sang. What is this אז? Why was this word chosen as a prelude to the song, when the Torah has many common grammatical openings for such a passage: וישר משה, 'And he sang' or בעת ההיא ישיר משה...'At that time...', why אז?

The Midrash, sensitive to the choice of words, offers us some insight, although, in a perplexing manner:
"אמר רבי עקיבא, בשעה שאמרו ישראל אז ישיר, לבש הקב"ה חלוק של תפארת שהיו חקוקין עליו כל אז שבתורה: אז תשמח בתולה, אז ידלג כאיל פסח, וכו. וכיון שחטאו חזר וקרעו שנאמרבצע אמרתו. ועתיד הקב"ה להחזירו שנאמר אז ימלא שחוק פינו.
" At the time when Israel sang in praise, God adorned himself in a cloak embedded in it all the אז's in the Torah. When they sinned, He ripped it up. However, in the future, He will return to wear it once again."

What is the meaning of this strange metaphor? Why would the word אז embody the relationship between עם ישראל and `ה? In order to decipher the meaning of the Midrash we must analyze the true meaning of אז. In reality an אז is a moment in time. "Then", at that second, an incident occurred. What incident? That depends on the person, or, in our case, בני ישראל. Rabbi Joseph Baumol once explained that our lives are really made up of a few momentous occasions, a few אז's. The difference between a simpleton and a great man lies only in the number of great moments he encounters, or creates. The simpleton at the end of his life will look back to those few incidents where he shined; his marriage, children, possibly a great business deal, but all in all, not much in which to revel. An איש גדול on the other hand will be able to magically adorn his past years with beautiful אז's.

The analogy applies in the religious realm as well as the worldly. The true difference between the תפלה of an average Jew and that of a pious one once again depends on the אז. In an average שמונה עשרה, with its nineteen blessings, and supplications, a person, if lucky, will have one moment where he feels he is speaking to Hashem. So sad is our state that the poskim maintained one should not repeat his תפלה if it was said without proper כוונה. The pious one, though, from the initial request of שפתי תפתח`ה to the closing praise עושה שלום במרומיו, is in a constant dialogue with his creator, raising himself to unlimited heights. This then is the power of the אז, the capitalization of your most sacred moments.

Understanding anew this concept of אז, we can fully appreciate the greatness of the Israelites after קריעת ים סוף. When the Midrash exclaimed "At the time whenבני ישראל sang songs of praise to God, they were equal to Moses, and Moses was equal to them," it meant to say that at that moment, one of the greatest אז's in their lives, they had the ability to turn toward their redeemer and praise Him . That indeed warranted the label of "שקול כמשה רבינו", equal to Moses their leader.

If we return to our initial Midrash , the words of חז"ל radiate the profound event. That crucial moment when the children of Israel witnessed the demise of the Egyptian army, a natural reaction would be to celebrate, dance, and embrace one another. But without hesitation they turned to `ה and sang a beautiful song. הקב"ה could do nothing but enwrap Himself in all of the great moments, forming a cloak which would adorn Him day and night. Unfortunately, with the subsequent sinning of בני ישראל, the cloak ripped up severing the unique bond between Himself and His people.

The Midrash continues with one last message; " כל פרקמטיא של משה רבינו לא היתה אלא באז. הצלת נפשו..., קנטורו..., אף הפרשת ערים באז- אז יבדיל משה שלש ערים." In contradistinction to Israel, Moses maintained the spiritual level of "אז" throughout his life. Even the most mundane act as setting up ערי מקלט, was accomplished as an `עבד ה. Moses lived this life with such intensity and devotion that he was included in Rambam's typology as one of the four (himself and the Avot) 'unattainables'.

When we look towards the unreachable goal of Moses, or even attaining the level בני ישראל achieved, we often become depressed. The final line in the Midrash, though, encourages us not to despair. In the future `ה will redeem us, and once again adorn his cloak of many אז's leading His people to the ultimate ."אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשוננו רנה"--גאולה