Simhat Yom Tov Can be a Hard Mitzva to Observe. By: Rabbi Dan Margulies

September 27, 2018

Arguably the most important mitzva of the holiday season, and one which can be incredibly difficult for many people to actualize is the mitzva to be happy: “Vesamahta behagekha” (Devarim 16:14). It is a mitzva that usually finds its contemporary halakhic expression in physical (over-)indulgences e.g. food (Orah Hayim 529:1), alcohol (ibid.), fashion (529:2), and travel to Israel (Yerushalmi Hagiga 75d 1:1, Tosafot Hagiga 2a, see R’ Shimshon Nadel). Obviously there are ways to enjoy all of these things appropriately and in the proper moderation, but I hope equally as obviously, the celebration of the holiday and our expression of joy must transcend these physical indulgences.

Another avenue through which diaspora Ashkenazi Jews express this happiness is finally taking the opportunity (only 13 times per year!) to perform a mitzva that is really incumbent daily—for the kohanim to raise their hands and recite birkat kohanim (Rambam, intro. to Hikhot Tefila) and for the assembled congregation to hear and receive that blessing (Sefer Haredim 4:18, Beur Halakha 128). The rationale behind the origins of its customary omission, despite our general desire to perform as many mitzvot as possible as often as possible, is much debated (cf. Orah Hayim 128:44, Arukh Hashulhan 128:63-64), but most theories mention a desire on the part of the kohanim to be permeated with a strong sense of happiness when giving the blessing. It would have been impossible for a working-man to achieve the necessary sense of bliss any time other that the holidays.

I was recently asked, if we diaspora Ashkenazim avoid inviting the kohanim to pronounce the blessing until the holidays when we are commanded to be happy i.e. Yom Tov, why do we not have them say it on hol hamoed as well.

I think that in the experience of most contemporary American Orthodox Jews, the period of hol hamoed presents serious challenges to their ability to feel fully permeated with the happiness that halakha requires. The preparations necessary for the celebration of the week-long hagim which usually include laundry, shopping, cooking, cleaning, hosting, scheduling, and childcare are incredibly demanding. In addition, the inflexibility of many people’s jobs and their vacation policies make it so that the permissions under halakha to work during hol hamoed (work that has a pressing deadline, or which for ignoring it one will incur a major financial loss, cf. Orah Hayim 533, 536, 537) which were originally conceived of as accomodations for rare circumstances have come to apply to a larger percentage of people’s regular work. In ends up that besides all the additional preparations, people do not even have the entire week off to celebrate.

My gut tells me that this contemporary experience is not new. Of course the modern economy and the range of professions common among observant families have changed the dynamic somewhat, but I think that even centuries ago, when the minhagim surrounding the recitation and omission of birkat kohanim developed, many people were struggling with the same types of work/life balance and felt the need to work on hol hamoed for a variety of defensible reasons. I think that the omission of birkat kohanim on hol hamoed speaks to this exact problem, and I hope it provides some consolation for the modern family to know that we are not the first ones who can find it difficult to fully immerse ourselves into the joy and celebration of the holidays; our ancestors struggled with this too and they enshrined their struggle in the minhagim that they passed down to us today.

Further, on the holidays when our time is stretched thin, I hope that we can still scrape together the time and the peace of mind to really rejoice, to experience the mitzvot of the sukka, lulav, matza etc. and the mitzva to celebrate as Hakadosh Barukh Hu intends, and to channel that happiness into the mitzva of birkat kohanim, and the weeks ahead.

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Centering – By: Rabba Claudia Marbach

September 17, 2018

As the holiday season comes around again, I have been thinking about centering.

As a part-time potter, I spent this past summer with my hands covered with beautiful white porcelain clay. It is smooth, pure and notoriously finicky. Any wheel-thrown object begins with the challenge of centering the clay on the wheel. This may sound and look simple, but it is not. If the wheel is going too fast, the clay will fly off the wheel. If the wheel is too slow, the clay can torque and kink and no amount of pressure will get it centered again.

The muscle memory of where my hands should be and how much pressure to apply is critical. But even more important is my mental state. If I am anxious or distracted or angry, the clay will refuse to be centered. As one potter said: “Try to bully the clay with strength, not stillness, and it turns into a guided missile rather than a bowl.” Sometimes there are days when I am so distracted or stressed that I have to step away from the clay altogether. Other days I close my eyes and just feel the clay into center.

So in order to center I have to bring myself into center. In this moment in history, centering is a very hard project. The phone pings, emails come in, ads for this and that. Too much to do, too much to read, too much to care about, too much to be angry about, too much distraction. All the “too much” makes it hard to find the center. If I can’t find the center then it is too hard to do the creative work of making the bowl – or too hard pray in any meaningful way – not to mention creating a thoughtful, intentional life. I can just go round and round and then spin out of control.

But when I do get the clay to center, I take a breath and decide upon a form. A moment of choice.  Rabbi Abraham Twerski said that teshuva is about learning to take a breath before acting. In that moment of breath we choose our next act. A bowl, pitcher or plate? Be kinder? Listen before reacting? Forgive? As Mary Oliver asked in her poem The Summer Day: “What will you do with this one wild and precious life?”

Once centered we can begin to be creative, in imitation of  God. We can really be alive. As MC Richards says in her book Centering, “”The centering experience is an experience in the soul, whether we get it primarily through hands or eyes or imagination, and this is its compelling strategy. When we are on center, we experience reality in depth rather than in partition.”(p. 53)

My favorite metaphor of the Yamim Noraim, you won’t be surprised to hear, reads:

כִּי הִנֵּה כַּחֹמֶר בְּיַד הַיּוֹצֵר  

בִּרְצוֹתוֹ מַרְחִיב וּבִרְצוֹתוֹ מְקַצֵּר

כֵּן אֲנַחְנוּ בְיָדְךָ חֶסֶד נוֹצֵר

לַבְּרִית הַבֵּטוְאַל תֵּפֶן  לַיֵּצֶר

Like clay in the potter’s hands

expanded or contracted at will

So are we in Your hand, Creator of kindness.

Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser/evil inclination.

The paytan asserts that God has the power to form and shape us and our future. God is the Yotzer or Creator, fashioning us from clay.  Just as we attempt to center ourselves and ignore our own inner critical voices we ask God to do the same in judging us.  We hope that God filters out the noise, listening and looking at us truly. As God says in Bamidbar 14:20:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ סָלַ֖חְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶֽךָ׃ And the LORD said, “I pardon, as you have asked.”

The Yamim Noraim are a time to look for the center. Amidst the noise in our lives, we are asked to put everything aside and look inward and take stock of ourselves. What have we done with our one wild and precious life? How can we make it right? How, like God, can we do that with chessed – loving -kindness – both towards ourselves and other? May you be blessed with finding your center year, more often than not. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.

 


On Religious Materialism…Part I By Dr. Elana Stein Hain

September 12, 2018

It is no secret that Modern Orthodoxy has a money problem. Beyond Shabbos table anecdotes, the September 2017, Nishma survey listed the cost of Jewish schooling (1), the cost of maintaining an Orthodox home (4), people being dishonest in business (5), and the adequacy of funds to meet community needs (10) among the “top ten issues that are perceived as problems facing the modern Orthodox community.” As we begin another year of paying for school, shul, meals, festive clothing, ritual objects, etc., etc., I want to share a few thoughts about religious materialism, that is, the way we spend money on religion. Consider it a more expansive version of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of mitzvot). It is not only about the cost of a shofar or a sukkah, but the costs of this religious lifestyle overall. This post will be part 1 in a series.

Usually the question posed is: How can we make Orthodox life less expensive? But I think this misses the fact that for many, having a beautiful shul (which costs money) and an impressive school (which costs money) is not a deterrent from the Orthodox life, but makes it more compelling. Who wants their child’s Orthodox day school experience to be inferior to what they could get elsewhere? Who wants their car to be nicer than their shul?

This is exactly the point that Etan Diamond makes about why Orthodox Judaism thrived in the suburbs in the mid-20th century. In his book “And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia,” he asserts that religious materialism played an important role (alongside the day school movement, in fact). As Orthodox Jews became more upwardly mobile, their Jewish lives had to keep up with the rest of their standards of living to be compelling. Consequently, shuls changed from the shteibel model to a more upscale, suburban look and feel: the types of place someone in the upper middle class would want to be. Likewise, kosher food and establishments began to compete with non-kosher luxury experiences to be “subtly attractive to the modern world.”

Given this possibility, I think the question should change: How can we keep Orthodoxy attractive to the whole community, given that for some it needs to be less expensive to be attractive (=possible) and for some it needs to be more expensive to be attractive (=compelling), whether people admit so or not)?  To be sure, there is what to talk about in terms of the dangers of excessive materialism generally, and we’ll get to that in another post. But right now, let’s recognize descriptively that different lifestyles are simply a fact in our communities.

To set the groundwork for addressing this issue, I turn to the Gemara in Menaḥot 89a, where Chazal recognize both spending and saving as Torah values:

שלשה ומחצה למנורה חצי לוג לכל נר:  מנא הני מילי דתנו רבנן (שמות כז) מערב עד בקר תן לה מדתה שתהא דולקת והולכת מערב עד בקר…ושיערו חכמים חצי לוג מאורתא ועד צפרא איכא דאמרי מלמעלה למטה שיערו ואיכא דאמרי ממטה למעלה שיערו מאן דאמר ממטה למעלה שיערו התורה חסה על ממונן של ישראל ומאן דאמר ממעלה למטה שיערו אין עניות במקום עשירות

I’m paraphrasing to clarity: The menorah in the Beit HaMikdash needed 3.5 log of oil, half a log in each of its seven cups. This was the amount needed for it to burn overnight. Per rabbinic understanding of Shemot (Exodus) 27:21, the menorah should have enough oil to burn from evening until morning. The sugya continues with a debate over how people calculated the quantity of oil needed to burn overnight. Did they start with more oil than needed, and decrease as they experimented and saw that less was needed? Did they start with only a little and increase as they saw that more was needed? Each side of the debate has its own logic. Those who assert that they started with less and increased the oil relies on the principle that “the Torah protects the money (=possessions) of Israel.” Those who assert the opposite rely on a principle which is evoked in the rabbinic literature only in context of the Mikdash: “There should be no indication of poverty in a place of wealth.” In other words, the Mikdash is a place meant to evoke abundance, largesse. Trying to save money in its functioning seems cheap.

Both spending and saving are valued here as religious principles. On the one hand, religious life should express abundance, a willingness to use our resources in service of God. On the other hand, the Torah itself expresses concern for protecting the hard-earned money of the worshippers. It is not that those who have less to spend should be viewed as cheap or somehow missing the mark. Their decisions reflect a different religious value. How should we mediate between these two approaches? This will be of Part II, my next blog post on religious materialism. In the meantime, כתיבה וחתימה טובה!

 


We Can Fix This! By: Yosef Kanefsky

September 4, 2018

 

As we will repeatedly concede during our tefillot over the coming awesome days, it will be up to God to decide much of what will happen in the coming year. But we should not underestimate for a second how much is up to us to decide.

This past year was characterized by incredibly unpleasant, painful, and alienating discourse, around Shabbat tables, online, and almost anywhere. The landscape of 5778’s waning days is strewn with broken friendships, strained families, communities riven apart, and a civil society that is civil in name only.

5779 though, is in our hands. I have found the following Talmudic discussion to be helpful and encouraging, and I hope you will too:

The Torah records two pretty similar mitzvot, one in Shmot and one in Dvarim. In Shmot we’re commanded to help our enemy unload his animal when we see that animal collapsed beneath its burden. In Dvarim, we’re commanded to help our brother reload his animal when the animal’s burden has fallen.

The Talmud puts the two mitzvot into the blender, and then asks: what if you simultaneously encounter your brother’s animal which is collapsed and in need of unloading, and your enemy’s animal which whose burden has fallen and is in need of reloading? Which takes priority? The Talmud’s answer: The priority is to help your enemy to reload. “But why?” the other voice in the Talmud demands. The collapsed-and-still-loaded animal is suffering, and by Torah law we are directed to prevent the suffering of animals! Shouldn’t the mitzva of unloading automatically take precedence over the reloading? Yes”, the Talmud concedes, this line of reasoning would ordinarily be correct, but not in this instance. In this instance the priority is to unload with your enemy as a means of vanquishing your natural inclination to ignore your enemy’s plight. Vanquishing your own nature is deemed an uber-mitzvah, an activity of transcendent worth.

A question though: Exactly which aspect of his human nature is the person being asked to defeat here? Hatred of his enemy? Not a bad one to work on, but it happens not to be the one the Torah is discussing here.

The word for enemy that the Torah uses here is שונאך (sonacha), which we instinctively translate as “someone whom you hate”. But as Torah Temima points out, the Biblical word for someone whom you hate is שנואך (snoo’acha). שונאך (son’acha) by contrast, is “a person who hates you”. Meaning, that what the Talmud is prioritizing as an uber-mitzvah is not the act of vanquishing your inclination to ignore the plight of someone whom you hate (as admirable as this is.) It is rather the act of vanquishing of an entirely different – and much more significant – negative inclination, that of refusing to come to the aid of someone who hates you, in your belief that no act of kindness on your part will ever change that person’s feeling about you. That no matter what you do, it won’t make any difference; there will be no equal and opposite reaction on the other side. This is the human inclination that threatens to trap all of us forever in enmity and bitter opposition. When we believe that our fellow human beings are incapable of change and that we are helpless in the face of minds that have already been made up, we will also believe that it’s completely futile to try to build bridges, or to extend ourselves with decency and kindness in the spirit of shared humanity.

 

And it gets worse. For when multiplied outward, it leads us to the ineluctable conclusion that working to effect positive change in the world is the most futile activity imaginable. For if humans can’t change, nothing can change. So why should I even bother? This is why the Talmud identifies this inclination as the one that we have to grab by the throat and subdue. For when we are willing to believe that change is possible, that sharp edges can be softened, that gestures of kindness and civility can elicit response in kind, then we can restore the bonds of our friendships, the wholeness of our communities, and our inspiration to keep working for a better world.  

This is the crisis of faith that we need to overcome today.  Not a crisis of faith in God. The crisis of faith in humanity.

Avot D’Rebbi Natan declares: Who is the mightiest of the mighty? The person who turns someone who hates him, into someone who loves him.” We can do this. We can fix this. One human encounter at a time.