Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Psalm 97: Reactions...

1 יְהוָה מָלָךְ תָּגֵל הָאָרֶץ יִשְׂמְחוּ אִיִּים רַבִּים׃
2 עָנָן וַעֲרָפֶל סְבִיבָיו צֶדֶק וּמִשְׁפָּט מְכוֹן כִּסְאוֹ׃
3 אֵשׁ לְפָנָיו תֵּלֵךְ וּתְלַהֵט סָבִיב צָרָיו׃
4 הֵאִירוּ בְרָקָיו תֵּבֵל רָאֲתָה וַתָּחֵל הָאָרֶץ׃
5 הָרִים כַּדּוֹנַג נָמַסּוּ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה מִלִּפְנֵי אֲדוֹן כָּל־הָאָרֶץ׃
6 הִגִּידוּ הַשָּׁמַיִם צִדְקוֹ וְרָאוּ כָל־הָעַמִּים כְּבוֹדוֹ׃
7 יֵבֹשׁוּ כָּל־עֹבְדֵי פֶסֶל הַמִּתְהַלְלִים בָּאֱלִילִים
הִשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ כָּל־אֱלֹהִים׃
8 שָׁמְעָה וַתִּשְׂמַח צִיּוֹן וַתָּגֵלְנָה בְּנוֹת יְהוּדָה
לְמַעַן מִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ יְהוָה׃
9 כִּי־אַתָּה יְהוָה עֶלְיוֹן עַל־כָּל־הָאָרֶץ
מְאֹד נַעֲלֵיתָ עַל־כָּל־אֱלֹהִים׃
10 אֹהֲבֵי יְהוָה שִׂנְאוּ־רָע
שֹׁמֵר נַפְשׁוֹת חֲסִידָיו מִיַּד רְשָׁעִים יַצִּילֵם׃
11 אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק וּלְיִשְׁרֵי־לֵב שִׂמְחָה׃
12 שִׂמְחוּ צַדִּיקִים בַּיהוָה וְהוֹדוּ לְזֵכֶר קָדְשׁוֹ׃


Psalm 97 depicts the ‘song’ alluded to by the psalmist in the previous one when he proposed for the entire land to sing to God a ‘new song’. This song begins with the words ‘Hashem melech”. It is about this phenomenon and really the reaction to this phenomenon that psalm 97 focuses.
What is our reaction to the revelation of God in the world? Do we even recognize it and feel the need to react? Or do we ignore the hand of God and continue with our lives as if nothing changed? Psalm 97 presents us with three reactions in a progression of importance yet also a progression of delayed reaction.
“Hashem melech—tagel haaretz” (God is the king, the land rejoices).
Nature is the first to react to the coronation of God as king. Humanity slumbers but nature arises and dances. The land rejoices, the islands are happy, clouds and smoke surround Him, fire shines all around Him, mountains melt and the heavens sing His righteousness.
The first five and a half verses describe an awakening to the presence of God by nature and though most of it is joyful, the land which begins with joy (tagel) concludes with fear and trembling (tachel) recognizing the contradictory emotions the presence of God evokes.

In the middle of verse 6 though a transition from the heavens to Man takes place as if to say that the heavens are nudging man to arise and realize the remarkable event of God’s presence. Man, however, is confused having been assured by his gods that they were in control of the world already. Those gods failed him at every turn but he was so invested in the business of manufacturing his own god industry, he could not step back and witness the true God appear.

The second half of the psalm focuses on man’s reaction which is slow at first, beginning with shame at having played the wrong hand for so long, but then slowly man turns away from these gods to GOD and exclaims ‘for you God are above all other gods, having risen above all the other deities’. This turning to God is clearly a positive step forward but saying that God is greater than all the other gods is still not an ideal state, after all—what other gods?

The final section though, reaches the pinnacle of God’s creation, though it seemed to have taken him the longest to arrive at the understanding that the heaven and earth had reached at the beginning. Nevertheless, their reaction is pure, focused, filled with passion for God and the fight against evil. They are the ‘lovers of God’, ‘chasidim’, ‘yishrei lev’ and ‘tzadikim’ and they call out to God and are ultimately protected by God from harm.

They are enshrined with light, joy, a great feeling of gratitude and thankfulness and happiness in the knowledge that God has appeared and all will be right in the world.

Note that these individuals have no origin, no clan, tribe or nation—simply ‘lovers of God’. This represents the universalistic song to God where the heavens and earth mountains and fields rejoice and where humanity must come to discern between truth and fake and finally where any individual who possesses the courage and conviction to love God and hate evil—they will be rewarded by God and continue to sing His praises in joy.

The universe feels God’s presence and slowly it trickles down to man and to righteous man to declare the greatness of God and rejoice in the impending holy presence of our creator.

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.