Rabbi Asher's Sermons for High Holidays 5779
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 - 5779
The reading this morning is mind-boggling when you consider the focus in on Yishmael. It’s really not on Avraham Avinu our patriarch, it begins but it’s really not on Yitzchak Avinu our second Patriarch, nor is it on Sora Imeinu, our original matriarch. On Rosh Hashana, we read chapter 21 the first day and chapter 22 the second day. It’s seems very difficult to read our Torah portion this morning and not be astounded by Avraham’s actions. None other than the Ibn Ezra himself, arguably Spain’s most famous rabbinic commentary from the 1100s, says “rabim yitmeihu meiAvraham, many wonder and they’re incredulous regarding Avraham, eich garash bno, how could he banish his child??!!!”
And you and I might add, why has it been selected these past thousands of years to read this exact passage on this particular great and awesome day?? You and I begin now 5779, we are about to hear Akiva’s shofar pierce our souls, we hear our chazzanim voices and in a few moments the haunting repetition by Rabbi Skaist will deeply effect our normally impervious, complacent inner selves. Our hopes and dreams for the year ahead and even our very lives for our future hang in the balance and we have to read about this?? We couldn’t be assigned a passage showing Avraham’s notable outstanding compassion such as for Sodom, or for Lot, or for his famous angelic guests or any number of dozens of passages that perhaps could have been more appropriate or at the very least less internally conflicting??
Perhaps, we can wonder together aloud, that surely there exists a parallel between the relationship of Avraham and his son and our relationship as banim laShem, children of our father in Heaven, Avinu Malkeinu, our father our king. The Creator who gave life to us, who watches over us. Perhaps that’s driving this discussion, this selection, Avraham is to Ishmael, the way G-d is to us in a sense.
Perhaps, we’re reading too much into it? This is just the story of the development of our people so that’s what caused the Sages to choose this perek to be read.
Perhaps it’s just an elaboration on the primacy of Yitzchak, after all how did Isaac become Isaac?? How did we get to that all important moment when Yitzchak was spared as we will read tomorrow and that is part of how you and I ended up in this room, in this sanctuary here today?
Lastly, maybe Sora saw that in order for her family to develop? In order for it to become the beacon that it became, the family whose contribution changed the course of human history, this was just a painful necessary banishment of Yishmael and his mother?
Or maybe it’s all of the above? Maybe we read about Yitzchak’s birth and being raised and then the terrible ordeal and challenging episode of this divorce and family separation for all of the reasons just mentioned?
Avraham and Sora did the unthinkable together. They challenged the status quo. They left Charan. They came to Israel, at that time called Canaan. They spread the creed of monotheism, a revolutionary, relatively heretical concept at that time. They yearned for children, took a concubine, had a prominent son, and then most amazingly conceived and bore their own remarkable son late in life. Now here they are and Sora says this other family has to go. Avraham is beside himself even considering such a plot. Yet, G-d Himself, directs Avraham “listen to your wife” seemingly saying “she knows what she’s talking about. You may not see it but she does. And don’t be so distressed, I G-d will personally look after the boy, thus promising that Yishmael will also become a great and awesome nation. “Shema b’Kolah, Listen to her voice.”
Thereupon, Avraham is reassured and the very next verse, “Avraham gets up in the morning, vayashkem Avraham baboker.” He takes bread and water and sends them on their way. We read on together how they run out of water and how Hashem miraculously saves them with a well-positioned and well-timed well.
This particular danger, and this particular existential crisis of water underscores our bewilderment at Avraham’s actions. He couldn’t give them more provisions. He couldn’t send them off with a more robust selection of food and drink. He was a wealthy man of stature at this point. He could have provided them with an endless supply of goods. Was it callousness? Was it intentional? Unintentional? Just a mistake?
So the Ibn Ezra continues his question which is reallyall of our questions, “gam shalach ben im imo reikam, he even sent his son away with his mother empty handed?? v’ayei nedavas libo, where was his giving heart??” And he adds further and then takes the next step which theologically is the most difficult, he explains the most difficult of all the difficulties is “ki Avraham asa k’chol asher tzivahu Hashem. Avraham did what he was told to do by G-d. The Almighty directed this. He orchestrated this in a sense. These directives came from the source of morality itself??” Avraham’s hands were tied behind his back not only by Sora but by G-d’s enforcement of Sora’s dictates. He did and acted and gave exactly what Sora and G-d wanted him to and that was it. He would never cross G-d and G-d’s command was do what your wife tells you.
Now this sounds like good general advice, but come on. The pasuk says “lechem v’cheimas mayim.” He gave bread and water. This is a goodbye party to end all goodbye parties and you couldn’t throw in some meat, some other goodies. Its bread and water and that’s it. No cookies, no baked goods, no cheese, nothing, bread and water!? We’re not going to sit here so many thousands of years later and castigate Avraham’s character without standing in his shoes but what’s going on here?
So the Ibn Ezra begins his answer and ostensibly encourages us to give Avraham the benefit of the doubt “v’yitachen shenosson la kesef v’zahav v’lo peirash hakasuv.” It’s possible Avraham gave more. It’s possible he gave gold and silver and riches but the verses themselves don’t relay that information. It’s more than plausible, he continues, that nutrition and sustenance was provided with more than enough to get from Gerar to the next city Be’er Sheva, yet unfortunately they got lost and he got sick and the rest of the situation as we know it ensued.
But for our purposes here this morning, for a true Rosh Hashana message for the year to jumpstart our introspection and reflection for the year, let’s consider one final point and response by the Ibn Ezra to our query. Rav Abba Ibn Ezra says look at Parshas Chayei Sora. Look at Avraham Avinu’s actions after Sora passes away. After G-d’s command to follow Sora’s command falls by the wayside. Look at chapter 25, at the first opportunity “nosson matanos l’bnei Yishmael.” He seeks out Yishmael and family not to say hello, not to see how he’s doing specifically, but for matanos. What are matanos? Gifts. What kind of gifts? Provisions, resources, that which he was unable to do beforehand. He kept it in mind this whole time. Physically, he wasn’t with them. But emotionally he was there. He didn’t so we can’t cast aspersions or truly understand their family decision making and apparent dysfunction, but we can see Avraham’s actions.
Obviously, we’re taken aback but there’s a critical message. Before Avraham passes away, he says I need to do this. I was bound while I was bound, but I’m not currently bound. I have these gifts, these possessions that need to go to their rightful owner. I submitted before but I’m free now. There’s still time.
On Rosh Hashana, there’s still time. There are 10 days for us to do an accounting. There are 10 days for us to let the shofar ring in our ears, to penetrate our thoughts. There are 10 more days for us to make amends. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. The Torah tells us no matter what was done, repentance is always an option. G-d can and will forgive us with the right sincerity and effort. Like Avraham, we need to mend the ties with family members, with friends, or perhaps directly with G-d. Maybe rifts were caused rightfully, maybe rifts were caused wrongfully, but let us treat others in the way we want G-d to treat us so that we might be more worthy ourselves. It’s never too late and now is the time to focus on these personal and profound possibilities for change.
There’s a story relevant to this point and on the one hand more directly linked with tomorrow’s Torah reading, but related today as well. Avraham’s ultimate test was potentially ridding himself of his main son, the one not with his concubine, the one direct inheritor of what would become the Jewish people, Yitzchak. And here too, all’s well that ends well.
Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel tells of when he first learned the story of Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac in his Polish cheder, he describes as follows:
“My heart began to beat very fast. It actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Avraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly, the voice of the angel was heard, “Avraham , lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest G-d.” And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. “Why are you crying?” asked my rebbie, “You know Yitzchak was not killed?” I said to him still weeping, “But Rebbe, suppose the angel had come a second too late.” The Rebbe comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”
Years later, Rabbi Heschel reminisced but pondered and concluded, “Yes an angel cannot come late, but we, we made of flesh and blood, we can come late.”
The shofar is our sound that the hour is upon us for looking in the mirror, for getting real, for getting our own raw truth into our minds for proper, responsible, self-interrogation before G-d. We want the Almighty to behold our growth and our strong desire to better ourselves. Avraham didn’t wait until it was too late, thankfully the malach the angel didn’t wait until was too late and for us that same offer lies before us to not wait and to seize the power that is the day of judgement, that we call Rosh Hashana and more exactly the Yom HaDin.
We take leave now with this American classic from playwright, Thornton Wilder in the hopes that we better internalize the lesson of urgency. Our Town’s character Emily lives just 26 years but is given the chance to live one day over again and she chooses her 12thbirthday. She’s suddenly home and sees her mother preoccupied with cooking. And she sees her father worn out from work after a long business day. Only she, in this state, is aware of the preciousness of the passing moments. It’s more than she can bear and even though she cannot be heard, she screams out “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, But just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re all happy. Let’s look at one another.” She weeps and as her birthday fades away. She says “Oh, Earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
In our prayers today, we ask G-d to remember us, even though, we mostly don’t remember G-d. We ask G-d to recall Avraham’s many sacrifices even if we fail to emulate. And to recall the pain experienced ultimately on behalf of subsequent generations. To recall Yitzchak’s valor. Sora’s efforts. And to draw upon for us the merits of Avraham and family. To help us help ourselves by acting with the knowledge that we now have and understand with thanks to the Ibn Ezra. That occurrences happen within families and within our relationships with each other and with G-d and we should extend ourselves and one ought to concentrate oneself on extending beyond what’s easy so that harmony can supervene. We’re more capable than we think. We’re stronger than we think. We’re smarter than we think. Rosh Hashana demands of us to be our best and impresses upon us that the time is now. End the estrangement. End the rejection. Make it up. Do something. Im lo achshav, If not now then when.
Yehi Ratzon, May it be Hashem’s will to bless this congregation for the coming year, taf shin ayin tes, 5779, with shalom, health, and closeness with each other and with the Almighty, the Borei Olam, our Father in Heaven, (Avinu Sheboshomayim). Shana Tova and Kesiva v’Chasima Tova, May we all be inscribed for good!
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 5779
Yesterday’s discussion centered around the potential demise of Avraham’s older son and understanding the evolution of the moral decision making that took place. This morning our core focus will be the potential demise of Avraham’s other son, his more famous son as we analyze the greatest test ever posed on an individual by G-d. What’s at stake is the greatest pain and feeling of loss that a human being can ever have, the loss of a child, in this case an only child. On this day of judgment, it is the study of potential loss where we aspire to greater appreciation of a more inspired daily living.
This action too begins with the fateful words of, “vayashkem Avraham baboker. And Avraham arose in the morning” As was so beautifully read this morning, the famous story of Akeidas Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac elicits and promotes many questions. Let us turn our attention to a primary source thousands of years old, the Midrash Tanchuma, that directly sheds some light on this most perplexing part of our history.'
“Vayakam Vayeliech” Avraham got up and he went “el hamakom” to the place, the place that Hashem told him to go. The coordinates are of no matter. It’s identity and its definition is simply the place of G-d’s choosing, which we now know to be Har Hamoriah, the chosen city of Yerushalayim, specifically G-d chose a mountain top that the people now know too as thee Temple Mount. That location captures the attention of the world in large part due to this Akeidas Yitzchak story.
“Kidmu hasatan baderech v’nidme lo b’dmus zaken” The Satan, confronts Avraham enroute to the mountain and makes himself appear as an old man. He says to Avraham, “where are you going? Avrarham says I’m going to pray. Then why do you have this wood with you, this fire with you, and this knife in hand. Avraham responds well we might be out for a day or two and it will be handy for our meals.
Then he presents himself Avraham, “Zaken!” Listen here old man! I was there when G-d told you “Kach es bincha” to take your son. And a man like you is going to go and lose a son given to you miraculously at such a ripe old age!? Avraham responds this and more so, I’d be able to stand up to an even harsher test.
Seeing the formidability of Avraham. The Satan recognizes that his powers of persuasion and ability to deter have met their match. The Satan then places a river before Avraham to block him from the mountain, but Avraham just keeps on walking. It’s up to his knees and he journeys on. The water then gets up to his neck so Avraham looks to the heavens and calls out “Ribono Shel Olam, how hard do you have to make this for me? You’ve chosen me for this!? I’m involved in doing your will and now this?! You’re going to take mylife by drowning or Yitzchak’s?! If we both go then who will tell humanity of obeying and fulfilling Your word? Who will speak of Your Name, Your Oneness? At this, the Almighty immediately stopped up the flowing waters and placed this parent-child expedition on firm dry ground.
The great modern Torah commentator, Professor Nechama Leibowitz, aptly describes this ancient Medresh as being representative of Avraham’s inner thoughts and mediation and how the turmoil afflicts him. One-by-one, he’s assailed by internal misgivings, first the paternal instinct, then the voice of conscience, then the religious issue of human sacrifice??!! Then the objective issues that circumstances make it impossible like a fierce river. Yet Avraham’s singular focus sees him through all of this to overcome his ultimate life test and there were many other tests but on this sacred day, the mother of all trials is read about publicly within shuls across the globe.
These doubts along their journey to har hamoriah are reminiscent of our own doubts. We have questions that we struggle with ourselves? Faith questions. G-d questions. Jewish law questions. Tragedy questions. We can all invest in education and go through the motions and come to synagogue but we all have difficulties along these lines. In previous generations these questions existed less and perhaps were never seriously entertained in our shuls and schools but in the 21stcentury challenges are correctly understood as part and parcel of the human experience.
Avraham, of all those who have ever lived, he is selected as the paradigm to learn from on this hallowed day and he is described as asking of G-d from every angle. But what is the image the Torah implores us to process. Keep going. Keep walking. Keep moving. Keep living. Are there questions? Yes! Are there doubts? Yes! Are there issues? Yes. But this is G-d. You are You, Avraham, and this is G-d. You want to understand, but who are you to understand! Avraham, you are but a temporal being, to borrow from Shakespeare, you are but relatively “a poor player, that struts and frets his hourupon the stage, and then is heard no more.” Who are you to think that you can be in the know? Strive, yes we learn from Avraham to strive, to strive with G-d, to strive against concepts of G-d, but what are we to glean above all else??
To keep on keeping on. Yes, we have stuff. We have baggage, but to what end? We don’t have answers but again whyshouldwehave answers?! My grandparents’ families were murdered, wiped out by vicious, wretched, evil Nazis. They had questions! They had worthy questions and real, true demands of G-d. Let them of blessed memory be the judge. Let their memories attest to the so-called questions that you and I might have. Do our questions stand the test of comparison next to theirs?! Let them be the judge? Is it even conceivable that we could proffer answers that would even begin to do their questions justice and yet you and I put so much weight on ourquestions and ourdoubts and our own inquiries. The chutzpah we sometimes have! Who decided that we the 21stcentury Jews are so special that we ought to know how G-d runs this world?! Of all human civilization, were we selected??
That’s the lesson of Avraham from this morning, there’s G-d and then there’s you and me. Very different beings with very different rights with very different abilities. Our avodah, our job is to get to that place of humbleness. We need to figure out a way to construct a sensitivity to humility despite our so called serious questions. We’re only human, if Avraham had questions then we certainly have questions, but often times its too easy to ask questions. Asking questions is simple but carrying on and persevering and lowering ourselves for the sake of understanding and progress that’s where our personal development, our self-growth comes into play.
We need honesty, we’re not the first ones to ask these questions, and we won’t be the last ones either.
The most perfect human being I ever had a connection to in my life, besides my wife:), The most perfect person I ever had a connection to was my rebbie, Rav Aharon Lichtenstien zatzal of blessed memory. I’ve never seen in my short years a more exalted impeccable person, a holy lofty off the charts intelligent rabbinic leader of a generation, a true bonified gadol hador. His image to this day is emblazed into my conscience. These are his words about internal divine theological examinations that we’re all familiar with.
“Faith cannot be contingent upon having all the answers. At one point, during my late teens, I was troubled by certain ethical questions concerning the destruction of Amalek and other nations. I then recalled that Rav Chaim Brisker would awaken nightly to see if perchance someone hadn’t placed a foundling baby at his doorstep. I knew that I slept quite soundly, and I concluded that if such a person of kindness coped with these laws, evidently the source of my anxiety did not lie in my greater sensitivity but in my weaker faith. And I set myself to enhancing it.”
So how can we affirm our faith like Avraham did in a world so beset by doubt? How, in the 21stcentury can we encounter halachic Torah-living with modernity, and yet preserve both our integrity and our identity? How can we be academically and philosophically honest and yet Jewishly firm? And how can we emerge from the dialogue between these worlds with renewed conviction on this Rosh Hashanah and with stronger faith? These are the words of my Rosh HaYeshiva Rabbi Dr. Lamm. This is not a religious age in which we live. Nor is it an age of willful heresy. It is but an era of confusion. But the confusion is not of ignoramuses nor of men who engage in trivialities; it is that of a generation living in the aftermath of unprecedented agony as well as massive intellectual displacement. For many, the will-to-believe is alive, but not the commensurate ability-to-believe. People are intelligent and concerned, but they question the validity of Judaism, its meaningfulness and relevance to their own situations. But their doubt is usually a more general and fundamental one: a challenge to the very meaning of life itself. Afterall, a human must think and to think is to question, to probe, to criticize. We are naïve if we think we can teach Judaism pass on Judaism especially to the young without encountering genuine doubt. And the doubts cannot be silenced by shrill dogmatic assertions or by charming rhetoric, much less by superficial and artificial solutiond. Such problems exist and we are going to have to meet them forthrightly whether we like it or not in our children and in our own selves. But our audience is not hanging on our every word, waiting to be converted. It is tortured by doubt and in this scientific age, it questions by training. We mustproceed with the agonizing and honest recognition that doubt is an ineradicable feature of our culture and our times. We dare not be distracted by fear or diffidence from radical confrontation with the skepticism that prevails even amongst committed American Jews in our days. This echoes ethics of our fathers chapter 2 “al taamin b’atzmacha ad yom moscha.” You can’t be certain in this world.
In an age of instant world-wide communication, where every stray remark of casual heresy is trumpeted throughout the world as a sensational discovery of revolutionary import, and when so many people are graduates of colleges where young instructors delight in shaking them loose from any religious convictions and moral moorings – in an age of this sort, simple, wholeseome, unquestioning faith has largely vanished. When faith is come by today, it must struggle relentlessly in unending tension with doubt. So many faiths have proved disappointing that many a thoughtful man is afraid to give himself wholeheartedly to anything, lest such dedication lead to more frustration and heartache. Until recently, faith once achieved or born into, became a state. Now it is an elusive goal, and religious belief is a process that requires constant renewal. This is not to say that this is a good thing to be encouraged, but we ought not waste our energies bemoaning the situation. The prevalence of doubt does not invalidate the faith of those who do not experience it. Doubt is not denial any more than assent is faith. Doubt must not be equated with denial. It is a state of suspension in between faith and heresy. If doubt is devoid of inherent worth, at least it possesses value as a means of acquiring truth. All of learning is the successive removal of doubts. Certainty can be attained, but only by means of doubts which are conquered and doubt therefore has instrumental significance. The doubt is not intrinsically good, but once it is there then it can be used. Out of the agony of a faith which must constantly wrestle with doubt may emerge an emunah of far greater vision, scope, and faith attainment. A gentile came to Shammai to convert on condition that he only have to accept the written tradition and not the oral tradition. Shammai rejected him because it wasn’t a total acceptance, but Hillel took him in and Rashi explains that Hillel correctly surmised that he doubted the truth of the Oral tradition but once Hillel could teach him then he would see it and so it was. Thus doubt can be acknowledged as legitimate within the confines of true faith. Functionally, action of course does not resolve dilemma but it does deepen faith by virtue of commitment and participation in the faith-act performance.
And so, we return to Avraham, our leader, our guide in faith struggles on this day when we investigate the most intense tribulation. Yitzchak turns Avraham right before they reach the summit asks where the offering is. After all, they have the knife and wood and fire but where’s the animal. Avraham answers his son that it will be determined by G-d and then it says “vayelchu shneihem yachdav.” They went together. And rashi explains why does the Torah tell us they went together because they were only of the same mind and purpose. Yitzchak only now realized that should there be no ram selected then it would be him on the altar. So Rashi comments that this extra phrase telling us what we already know that they went together is to teach us that now both of them were laser- focused on doing G-d’s will no matter what.
Yehi Ratzon, May it be Hashem’s will to calm our troubled hearts, to see to it that we look at and learn from Avraham and Yitzchak, our matriarchs and patriarchs, our ancestors and our traditions to help us navigate the turbulent waters of faith and faith challenges. May philosophical spiritual tranquility be victorious. May our questions and requests be answered. May G-d Almighty watch over us and protect us as he did when inaugurating mount Moriah. And May the Shofar blasts now be our non-verbal prayer up to the heavens to preserve the holy Torah, Hakedosha outside of us and within us. Shana Tova!
Shabbat Shuva - 5779
G-d asks us to change. Can we change? Have we ever changed for a friend or a business partner or a spouse or a family member?
What’s the difference between change and development or are they two sides of the same coin? A person has to ask themselves am I Jewish because that’s the way I was made and so be it. Do I believe in the Torah just because my parents did? If I were raised Muslim or Budhist or any other faith would it matter? The Torah tells us yes because we’re expected to be human not instinctual beings or resigned beings or complacent beings but beings constantly excelling, maturing, understanding what our proclivities might be and then harnessing that knowledge to better perfect our ways. Yom Kippur is about identifying those areas, inspiring ourselves to have resolve to improve those areas of our persona. How does one make amends with his or her fellow? By digging deep. Showing some humility and a willingness to lower oneself to say authentically what’s necessary to rehabilitate the interpersonal connections that need such work. Do we rationalize errors made in the G-d realm? Maybe by being too religious or not religious enough or maybe just having lots of doubts or questions with regards to the G-d realm? Then Judaism says work on it. Don’t stay the same. Grow. Be a more sophisticated servant of the Almighty. Go till the ends of the Earth to find whatever answers need to be found but always remember to maintain that relationship and work on it just like our person-to-person contacts. Yes, we might have a DNA and there’s an old debate of nature versus nurture but let’s not be satisfied with who we are or what level we’ve achieved or what faith we have. Like Moshe says, we have innate abilities that simply need harnessing and constant attention. Sure there might be wisdom in reading handwriting but doesn’t mean we can’t improve. It’s never set in stone. The 10 days of awe are synonymous with the 10 days of teshuva. Aseres yimei teshuva is about envisioning who we can be, proving to ourselves during this time that that higher level existence is possible and then reaching for it for the coming year. We can move our base, our equilibrium sort of speak. Just like there’s a physical weight and poundage and mass so too there exists a spiritual equivalent. Discipline is a universal tool and the mind is strong enough to overcome all baggage of all backgrounds with the right mentality. Yehi Ratzon May the Almighty give us the insight and the will to change our own personal status quo such that we are our very best selves.
Yom Kippur Kol Nidreh 5779
In the spirit of Yom Kippur allow me please to preface my remarks, by stating a request from all of you, for forgiveness for numerous inadequacies. On behalf of the congregation and myself, if at any time our service towards you was not up to par and your needs and expectations, or aspirations were not met, please accept these regrets. It is a responsibility and an undertaking viewed with the utmost importance. Please Communicate and reach out. The Chofetz Chayim said that before Yom Kippur we should all take a moment to grant mechila fore G-d treats us to an extent the way we treat His creations, the other, human beings in and around us. Let us take a moment at some point during our prayers to silently do just this.
This year’s Kol Nidrei message is related to this very idea.
It’s always been confounding and confusing. We’re ready to go. We’re geared up. Our mindset is made up. We’re here on Yom Kippur night. G-d has been searching for us, wondering where we’ve been, seeking us out near and far. Alas, at long last we’ve arrived. The closest we’ll ever get to meeting the Almighty face-to-face in this world, is this day on our calendar. And we begin our prayers talking about vows, talking about nedarim, going through a technical routine of annulment??
The answer lies in the suggestion that there are two themes of Yom Kippur: the transactional and the transcendental. The cold and the warm, both equally important. Tonight, in our liturgy, immediately following the Maariv/Yom Kippur Shemone Esrei there will be a recitation of Selichos, a unique series of supplications unlike any other holiday. The first of these is the ancient piyut “yaaleh tachanuneinu.” Let’s have a look on page 102.
Yaaleh Tachanuneinu is written in reverse alphabetical order. The first question is why is it written in reverse starting with the “taf” of tachanuneinu and then the next phrase has the “shin” in the word shavaseinu and so on and so forth? The second question is each of these stanzas has three phrases that begins “yaaleh” “v’yavo” “v’yeiraeh” and this is seemingly meant to parallel the famous holiday insertion known as “yaaleh v’yavo,” however, that paragraph begins “yaaleh v’yavo v’yagiah v’yeiraeh” and our selicha omits the word v’yagia which means to arrive or to reach. Why mysteriously leave out v’yagiah? And lastly the closing v’yeiraeh eileinu has no object. The whole prayer, we say v’yeiraeh, find our praise, find our atonement, find our request, and lastly we state v’yeiraeh eileinu, find us. We seem to be the object. What does that mean? We’ll the machzor aside for now.
So since tonight is Yom Kippur, we’re going to be very Jewish and answer our question with another question. Maimonides begins his laws of repentance with identifying thee Mitzvah of repentance, thee formal performance, the fulfillment that all of us will be involved in just a few moments from now is leaning over saying vidui, doing our confessions for the year for each and every category of transgression, for our faith, for our verbal attacks, for our slights, for our brazen treachery against G-d and against our fellows but what is thee mitzvah? Vidui. Confessions. The verbal declarations and acknowledgements of Yom Kippur. But you and I know that real teshuva, real repentance requires 3 criteria. Past, present, and future. We need to understand what we’ve done - charata, we need to leave it behind us – azivas hacheit, and commit ourselves to distancing forever from that mistake – kabala l’olam. And then and only then is it time for vidui. What about these 3 other steps? Why aren’t they each mitzvos in and of themselves like confessions? The answer is that the mitzvah goes on the last part. The declaration the Rambam says is meaningless unless you’ve dealt with it already. The vidui is the sealing of what’s already been accomplished. Just like the marriage itself is simply the completion of a courtship. The viduy is the cap on the process of repentance. This can be understood through some lexicology. The word hoda’ah in Hebrew shows great wisdom. It’s used in the context of giving “hodaah,” giving “thanks,” and “hodaas baal din” expressing remorse or accepting responsibility. These seem like opposites, how can they be the same word? The common denominator is appreciation. Not just any appreciation but an appreciation of imbalance. I receive something from you so I offer hodaah. I did something to you so I offer an admission, hodaah. It’s about expressing understanding of some level of indebtedness. But how can orally conveying this make up for anything. The prolific author and rabbinic psychiatrist, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski states that but 3 phrases are required to be had in marriage “Thank you,” “I’m sorry” and “I admire you.” Somehow these statements make up the core. Similarly, the Torah says there’s no Temple in Jerusalem, there’s no beis hamikdash serving as our nation headquarters in Israel so what do we have the recitation of verses, no longer a service acted out in full, but just our prayer books and our vocalizations. The power of narration with our chazzan here tonight is amazingly a worthy replacement.
To answer our previous questions, Maimonides whose not known for flowery prose and capturing or eliciting the emotional goes somewhat off script sorta speak in the 7thchapter and tells us the greatest teshuva, repentance results in man being drawn close to the divine. Clinging in some way one to the other. An embrace of sorts. What’s this holiday’s shechiyanu blessing going on, what’s the objective, it’s this state of being, of existence, a yom Kippur state of being. It’s on the mitzvah part, the viduy part, after all the other 3 aspects, the past/present/future are done and finished. Maimonides continues with uncharacteristic embellishment, and I quote, “Yesterday we were detestable, disgusting, distant, and abominable but today now we’ve made ourselves lovable, precious, close, and endearing.” That’s teshuva, That’s repentance. And that’s the power of Yom Kippur. And recreating this new state.
Why does the poem go alphabetically in reverse because we need to unpack and clarify the process of undoing and redoing correctly what we committed in ourselves from our past. And we are no longer the same as a result. Why is there no v’yagia within this version of yaaleh vyavo? Because on Yom Kippur we want to go straight to v’yeiraeh. We want to ascend, yaaleh! We want to approach, v’yavo! And go straight to beholding our father in Heaven, v’yeiraeh! We’re anxious enough to skip arrival, because tonight arrival is not enough, it’s not enough to reach the end, rather it has to be breached! Tonight, there’s no settling for “higiah” “I’m here.” Rather it’s yeiraeh, it’s absolute togetherness that can be actually sensed and not just perceived. And why is it stated “vyeiraeh eileinu” find us. Because its us in our rawest form, there are no more descriptors, no more representations. It’s not about us. It is us. Eileinu. It’s no longer about what we’re saying or doing really. It’s about our very selves, our very beings having presence for this paranormal heavenly appointment, we call Yom Kippur. The mitzvah is the confession, the vidui, a simple sentence of “I have wronged you” but it’s the magic of the consummation of the process and that’s why its thee fulfillment delineated by rambam at the outset of his laws on repentance.
Ladies and Gentleman, the moment of Yom Kippur has arrived. There exists a unique shudder that knows no other scene. We come before our Creator not just to annul past deeds and conduct a transaction of simply checking the boxes of certain protocols but that is part of being in the transformation that is Yom Kippur. Transcending our normal limitations and soaring together each of us and all of us at once to a kind of intimacy, to a kind of nearness never otherwise experienced. Not just reaching G-d’s domain, but being in G-d’s domain. Our avoidance of food and other physicality points to our striving for such lofty levels on high. Yehi Ratzon, May it be G-d’s will to see us meet in the upper echelons not otherwise known on any day other than this great and awesome day, we call Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur Yizkor 5779
What’s Our Tomorrow Going to Look Like?
One of the most surreal, extraordinary moments of the year, is the Yizkor on Yom Kippur. The confluence of the great, awesome, day of immense power and the strong, evocative, emotive prayer for our loved ones, personal and plural. Here we have the overlap of this gift from G-d of a day endowed with overwhelming power and a man-made, modern - relatively artificial prayer no less potent when considering its capacity for inspiration. Indeed, what has become the highlight for many in terms of spiritual uplift includes recollection of past generations.
One figure who does not get memorialized at Yizkor due in part to its contemporary nature is the kohein gadol, the high priest. And while he’s absent for this next part of our service, he’s very much a part unlike any other personality of the highlight of the Yom Kippur service from yesteryear. We try perhaps in vain to recapture what once was the ultimate Jewish experience waiting with bated breath collectively for the High Priest to emerge having concluded the ultimate task of representing the entirety of our people before G-d in the holy of holies on the holiest day of the year having hopefully been granted full immunity in a sense and the broadest of atonements for all our people.
Let’s consider for a moment as strange as it might be for our 21stcentury vision, the most powerful and most spiritual of men or kohanim who holds in a sense in his hands the keys to the spiritual level of the people as a whole. Donned in full regalia with accoutrements never otherwise showcased except on this day, handling instruments uniquely purposed for Yom Kippur, following through on procedures never otherwise performed, all this referenced and referred to verbally by the cantor and textually in our prayers today but alas not truly, really felt intensely enough by even the most fervent among us.
However, back then, this was their Yizkor in that the Kohein Gadol literally stood at the pinnacle of the service. This isn’t just history but its our tradition. Within the busy-ness of the day, the Kohein Gadol interspersed each of his responsibilities with a visit to the mikvah. The waters not only purified but also set the tone for each required action thereafter and the accompanying changing of the garb. This included not only going from outside to inside the chamber known as the kodesh kodashim, the holy of holies, as he put on the white garments now too a color very much associated with this auspicious day as evidenced by this kitel but even when he exited the inner sanctum to go out, to go from the interior to the exterior, he went to the mikvah, submerged and then changed to his golden vestments.
Rav Zevin zatzal one of the foremost rabbis and scholars from the early part of last century in Israel, asked the following question. It makes sense that the Kohein Gadol went in the mikvah before going into the kodesh kodashim but why did he need to go into the mikvah on his way out when ostensibly he was going down in holiness, he was going from an apparent more holy place to a less holy area? And the answer that he gives is that it matters greatly how he performed in taking that increased holiness with him. It mattered how he took the ultimate experience with him to his next routine. Was it profound enough that it impacted him beyond just the time and the place of the holy of holies? And did it effect him to the extent that it multiplied as he kept going in his service? And if it did he continues to explain then the dipping in these waters served the purpose of clinching the experience that was just had, so he was even more elevated in this way actually when he was situated outside the kodesh kodashim. His Position was thus enhanced as the kedushah became ever amplified. This level being put into contact with the real world thereafter his solitude in the inner chamber, created a combination even more impressive and even more required to be cinched.
So too in the same tractate as the mishna describes all these high priest Yom Kippur acts, we are told at the very end by Rebbie Akiva, that just like mikvah’s purification powers so too G-d accomplishes the same for our people. When is this seen on the maximum level? It’s seen and experienced on Yom Kippur. We come out cleaned off of everything that’s been bothering us or at the very least having gained a healthier perspective. It’s hard to wrap our heads around, but the message here is that the issue is not how we are inside of the shul, not how we are inside the shul on Yom Kippur, or during the holidays, but how we are and who we are thereafter. We shouldn’t think anything less of tomorrow then we think of today. The outside of the sanctuary may be different. It may feel dissimilar but the purpose of Yom Kippur like the purpose of Kohein Gadol’s mikvah is not to stay there.
Rabbis ought to be jealous of their congregants … and here’s why. It’s easy when the expectations are to daven every day, it’s the rabbi’s job to go to minyan every day, say all the blessings everyday. But you know what has value, real value, skyrocketing value, that’s when you can live in the real world and interact with society at work and at home and in the city with the Torah yet there alongside you as a guiding light. This is where the challenge comes in, what’s our tomorrow going to look like?
The code of Jewish law, the shulchan aruch, the text from hundreds of years ago that forms basis of what you and I know as Jewish Torah living today, begins by telling us to take on the new day like a lion with vim and vigor; and then rav moshe isserles, the most important of 17thcentury Ashkenazi authorities relays to us the famous ancient words of the psalmist, “shevisi Hashem lnegdi samid” The Almighty is set before me at all times. And he continues that the ways of man in public are comparatively unlike the ways of man in private. The ways of our actions before a king are not recognizable outside his chamber. And he sends us a message that when others are watching we’re reminded how to act and it is with G-d that way as well, unlike when we get up and lay down at night in our rooms, in our own quarters. You and I here today know that G-d is watching but will we recall when after the sun sets this evening that G-d is monitoring. And he concludes with encouragement, “Don’t be dismayed if your fellow looks askance at you as you take into account not just your consideration but G-d’s considerations. It may seem strange to be religious in the outer world but sincerity is demanded.
Are we duplicitous? Do we carry ourselves differently inside the shul? On Yom Kippur? We shouldn’t be mistaken, all observance and measured religious fervor should be embraced but can it be confirmed when entering the domain of the normal not just the spiritual. Ethics of our fathers has a teaching in the second chapter to not judge your fellow until you’re in his place and the classic commentator from the middle ages, the Meiri, describes that this is literal it means until you’re literally in his place, you can’t know a person. What does that mean? It means if you want to know a person ask his wife, ask her husband, ask the children. To the outside world, he or she could be a beautiful person but what’s the person like inside.
What are we like on Yom Kippur? We’re like angels, like malachim, we’re less physical and more spiritual. We don’t eat, we don’t have relations, we don’t wear comfort shoes out of leather, we don’t perfume, or bathe. We’re on a different plane, but what about when it’s not Yom Kippur.
You know what, if we go back to our main character, the kohein gadol, the gemara tells us what he did right after his most other-worldly day of the year. He went back to his life. You could find him in the market. That’s right! Front and center one day and the next, out shopping! Why? He had to be with the people. The Torah doesn’t advocate for staying in Yom Kippur mode, for staying in high priest mode. Normalcy is part of the game.
What’s holier than today? Tomorrow. How we bring our own holy of holies, Shabbos shabbason with us on our journey through the year 5779. Maya Angelou said, “This is a wonderful day, I haven’t seen this one before.” That’s an appropriate attitude. Not to be wistful about a surreal Jewishness we have once a year but to take it with us.
The same is true with our ancestors we remember today. It’s not about the longing and the reminiscing. It’s about what they added to our lives. What we’ve taken with us from their days that still yet powers on.
Whether it be the Kohein Gadol or our heroes from previous generations. Family heroes or Am YIsrael’s heroes. We can’t let their lives have been lived in vain. We need our living to match their best instructions and we hope and pray and work for the same for our own legacies. It’s not a zero sum game but it’s a constant model for us to yearn and reach for. Yehi Ratzon May it be G-d’s will to bestow upon us a return to the grandeur of the original Yom Kippur with all of our people and all of our generations together once again.
Yom Kippur Neilah 5779
It’s very hard. It’s neilah. The gates of Yom Kippur prayer. The most powerful kind of prayer. They’re going to close. We stand shoulder to shoulder. We’re relying on each other. The person to our left is helping us because of the efficacy of their kavana, their prayerful intentions. The person to our right is helping us because his or her merits are lifting us up for all the charity they’ve given this year. The person behind us works with a less privileged demographic and their worthiness is giving us a boost. And the person in front of us is soaring due to their scholastic prowess of Torah study. We’re depending on each other. We’re a team. A tightknit team.
This week 4500 people gave half a million dollars in a day to some people halfway around the world because they were recently widowed and orphaned. Ari Fuld, a hero, victimized because he was us. He was a Jew. Within hours a funeral procession took place at midnight, in the middle of the night, as is their custom to lay to rest as soon as possible with thousands and thousands and thousands of people in attendance who didn’t even know the victim personally. Why? Why would they do this?
Because we’re a team, we need each other, we rely on each other.
It’s hard. Last month, my sister became a widow with 6 children to raise who no longer have a father. That’s very hard. Again thousands attended the funeral and the shiva over the course of the week. Why? Aren’t they busy? What will it accomplish? Will it bring him back to life? Will it make the pain go away? Some of these answers are not simple.
The answer is that we need each other. We need each other. Whether we care to recognize that or not. Whether we want to recognize that or not. Each person here. Each person not here who should be here is critical. Absolutely critical. Our people are deeply impacted by the absence, the exclusion of even one member.
Let’s face it. There aren’t that many of us to go around. Someone here thinks, someone in this room thinks that I’m not talking about them. “Oh, he means everybody is necessary except for me.”
No. I am talking about them. I am especially talking about them. Involvement, presence, contribution. Rabosai, ladies and gentlemen. We need you. You are needed to step up. To hold our hands. To put your arm around us. To roll up your sleeves.
We can’t do this anymore. It’s too hard. The Almighty wants, desires our unity. We have to stop putting each other down. We need to fill our lips with something else. We need to stop the griping, the pettiness and start the inspired action, the committed extra strong bonding.
The truth is there’s a reason for all of this. We often don’t appreciate our importance because we just don’t get it.
At the beginning of chapter 19 in Vayikra, G-d gives us a simple imperative, Be Holy, kedoshim tiheyu. That’s then followed by ki kadosh ani, I am holy and the reminder hashem elokeichem, your G-d. And the sages explained to us thousands of years ago that lest you think “you’re holy, I’m holy, we’re equal.” G-d reinforces that the Almighty is holier. And Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the great Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva from generations ago, is completely confounded by this maamar chazal? Would we ever dream, would we even dare to imagine that we’re on G-d’s plateau, that we’re right up there with Him? Would we ever even imagine such a thing so what’s the rationale?
He says if the sages wouldn’t have made the suggestion then it would be preposterous. But he continues, it wasn’t preposterous to them, chazal understood how capable, how powerful we really are. Those who know, needed this confirmation from G-d. You’re holy and I’m holier and the way to understand it, is not as a put down but rather as a lift. G-d is even at a higher point. We’re there but yet there’s still a beyond, above that. Our Sages, our founders, our scholars knew this potential and deeply appreciated it. That our greatness could even be in the same ballpark as G-d.
And so we should be taken aback by the eminence, the gadlus of the man or woman or child next to us. We should see and consider their holiness and thank our good fortune to have them on our side, in our broader family.
And so now at this awesome moment let us ask of each other to please seek G-d out on each other’s behalf.
Tractate baba kamma says you know why Yitzchak was able to be miraculously born to such old parents because Avraham prayed for his fellow Abimelech for the same issue of barreness. “Kol hamevakeish rachamim al chaveiro” Anyone who seeks and prays for mercy for his fellow will see that same mercy bestowed upon him.
For 5779, this is our last chance. Let our fates be sealed At this juncture while holding on to each other. Let G-d watch us and our families in unity this coming year. Let this coming year be a year of no more painful drama. Let the Ribono shel olam, the master of the universe look after those orphans and all orphans as we resolve to take care of each other and Hashem in turn do the same for us! May those of the covenant be set for a good life! “vachasom l’chayim tovim kol bnei brisecha” !!