Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Walk Article-Ha'azinu

Rabbi David Walk

This Shabbat has a sort of surreal feeling about it.  It's sort of tucked in between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and even though in the official version of Jewish tradition Shabbat is the holiest day of the year (that's why Shabbat has more aliyot to the Torah than other occasions), this Shabbat seems to be overwhelmed by the big guys on either side.     Even rabbi types have trouble getting our act together for speeches and sermons because we've been working so hard on the High Holiday presentations.  And now we have multiple talks to prepare for Sukkot.  When is there time to fit in preparation for this Shabbat?  I have a feeling that many balabustas feel the exact same way.  I mean how many meals can we shop, plan and cook for?  Therefore I hope that everyone out there reading this will have compassion on the food and speech preparers this week.  You can get back to normal criticism next week.  Thank you, that is all, over and out.  Just kidding!  I do have a Torah idea to share with you.
There is another issue that feels kind of weird this week.  We just spent that last week and a half wishing everybody in sight a happy new year.  We have been heavily emphasizing the newness of everything around us.  However, when we open up the Torah this Shabbat morning, we find ourselves at the very end of the scroll.  As a matter of fact, endings are the major topic of the reading.  We are immersed in the ending of Moshe Rabbeinu's life, and his closing remarks to the assembled throng, as the rest of Jewish history peers over their shoulders.  We are the fly on the proverbial wall observing this touching scene, as Moshe bids fond farewell.  Hopefully we will be the generation who actually heeds Moshe's warnings in this very intimidating poem.
But there still is the nagging question:  Why couldn't the Sages have coordinated the
Torah readings with the calendar and begun the annual cycle together with the New Year?  Before I share my brilliant (?) insight, allow me to give a more traditional answer.  The rabbis of old seem to have been focused on Shmini Atzeret (and, of course, in the Diaspora Simchat Torah) as the perfect ending time for the Torah's cycle.  Why is this true?  Although there are many answers, I really like the answer of Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik.  The Rav explained that Sukkot is the holiday of Torah shel b'al peh,  or the oral Torah.  When Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai the second time with the second set of Tablets of the Law on Yom Kippur, he also brought the first teachings of the Oral Tradition, which helps to explain the Torah sh'bichtav or the Written torah.  The Rav goes on to elucidate that no other series of laws in the torah require an oral tradition to explain them more than the laws of Sukkot.  The Torah barely hints at the requirements of the sukkah construction.  While the Torah goes on and on describing how to build the Mishkan, there is almost nothing about the dimensions or details of this hut.  Also, the Torah doesn't even name the four species which we must wave during the festival.  We need the oral tradition to decipher the coded allusions to these items.  So, we sit in our huts and appreciate the importance of the Oral Tradition.  Then the sages decided that we should connect these two halves of the Torah by celebrating the Written Law's completion and beginning on the Holiday of the Oral Law.
As excellent as that answer is, I'd still like to present an alternative approach.  I believe that the content of this week's reading provides a strong clue as to why those rabbis of old wanted the Torah completed a couple of weeks into the new year.   What is the poem of Ha'azinu about?  Let's take a look at a few verses:  But Jeshurun (Israel) became wealthy and kicked at God.  You became fat, thick, sleek, and obstinate!  Then they abandoned God who had made him.  They provoked God to anger with strange gods…They sacrificed to demons, not to God.  You were unmindful of the Rock who bore you, and forgot the God who gave you birth. Then God said, 'I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be, for they have become a perverse generation (Deuteronomy 32:15-20).'  It's a poem of warning about future backslidings of the Jewish nation.  The catalyst will be wealth, but this can only happen if the Jews forget their history and tradition.  To prevent this dystopian future, we have only to remain true to our heritage.  How do we do that?  Well, we read the beginning of the poem.
Moshe begins this amazing poem by calling upon heaven and earth to bear witness to his crucial message.  This powerful preaching begins with the antidote to this fearsome fate.  Moshe states, 'Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations.  Ask your parent, and you will be informed, your elders, and they will tell you (verse 7).'  We can prevent this dreadful prospect by remembering our past, by recalling the precedent of our forebears.  When we become prosperous or successful it's critically important to remain true to the tenets that got us here.
Now we can begin to understand why it is so essential that we begin the year with this reading.  It is imperative to remember our past to usher us into a better future.  We begin our new year with a plethora of wonderful expectations, but we must remain mindful of how best to attain them.
It's not just that old saw about those who forget the past are doomed to relive it.  There is a more potent principle:  Remember our heritage to attain the future we have prayed for.  Use that past we just spent so much time thinking about on the High Holidays to plan a fabulous future.  What could be more important to remember as we enter the new year?          

Monday, September 21, 2015

Walk Article-Yom Kippur


Yom Kippur-5776

Rabbi David Walk


            Many times in these articles I've preached against belief in magic.  But there are some concepts within Judaism which do seem to smack of the enchanted.  Kapparah or atonement is one such principle, and it dominates the immanent Yom Kippur scene.   How can sins just disappear? In the words of Isaiah:  If your sins are blood-red, they'll become snow-white.  If they're red like crimson, they'll become like virgin wool (Isaiah 1:18).  That's pretty good laundry service!  Maimonides gives an even more powerful image:  How wonderful is the uplifting essence of repentance! Somebody can, on one day, be separated from the Lord, God of Israel; one can beg but are ignored; perform mitzvot but they are discarded, as it is written, "`O that there were one among you who would shut the doors that you might not kindle fire on My Altar for nothing! I have no pleasure in you', says the Lord of Hosts, and on the very next day one can be attached to the Divine Presence; begs and is answered immediately; performs mitzvot and they are accepted with repose and joy. Furthermore, God prefers such people, as it is written, "Then shall the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant to the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in former years" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 7:7).  This sounds magical, bordering on miraculous.  So, the question arises how does this process work?  What is the mechanism for teshuva or repentance to achieve such wondrous results?

            In Judaism there are three major human relationships which are continually referenced.  They are parent-child, monarch-subject and husband-wife.  The repentance season is a three stage progression, which moves through all three of those relationships.  The month of Elul represents the parent-child connection.  This is highlighted in the famous Psalm which we begin to recite with the inception of Elul:  My father and mother abandoned me, but God took me in.  Point me down your highway, God; direct me along a well paved road (Psalms 27:10-11).  The Hebrew word at the beginning of verse 11 is horeini and could be translated as 'parent me', because the root of that Hebrew word can mean to teach or direct but also is the basis for the modern Hebrew term horeh which is a parent.  Next up is Rosh Hashanah which clearly focuses on the Kingship of God.  We really push the God as monarch agenda to the hilt.  The word melech or king dominates the davening, and is inserted where ever possible. 

            This brings us to Yom Kippur and the third of our paradigmatic relationships.  On Yom Kippur the emphasis is on the fact that we share a marital relationship with God.  This may actually be the rationale behind that custom of ancient Israel that marriages were arranged on Yom Kippur afternoon.  But the clearest expression of this is again found in Maimonides.  There is a custom in many yeshivot to study a chapter of his Laws of Repentance daily during the ten day period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, ten days and ten chapters.  So, please, pay close attention to this excerpt from the tenth chapter, studied by many on Yom Kippur:  A person should not say: "I will fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah and occupy myself in its wisdom in order to receive all the blessings which are contained within it or in order to merit the life of the world to come."  It is not fitting to serve God in this manner. A person whose service is motivated by these factors is considered to be one who serves out of fear. He is not on the level of the prophets or of the wise.  One who serves God out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.  This is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was only motivated by love.  What is the proper level of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is a lovesick person whose thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her. With an even greater love, the love for God should be implanted in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded (Deuteronomy 6:5) "Love God... with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might."  This concept was implied by Solomon (Song of Songs 2:5) when he stated, as a metaphor: "I am lovesick." Indeed, the totality of the Song of Songs is a parable describing this love (Laws of Repentance. 10:1-3).

            What should be true of the love between spouses?  Here I refer to a psychologist and friend, Dr. Mark Banschick, 'Even a successful couple will hurt each other now and then. They acknowledge, forgive and let go. And the hurts they do hold on to are not game changers. Their love is a living field of trust that can deal with disappointment or hurt, like our immune systems can handle minor illnesses… May forgiveness be something alive in your life-a forgiveness that is honest and true. This is a holy thing (Can You Forgive?, posted on PsychologyToday.com, October, 3, 2011).  He also said, 'In my mind, the capacity to forgive is a powerful and affirmative part of our humanity. It's the soul's ability to clean away psychic hurt that clings too tightly… Forgiveness is not easy. But, when done right, it can set you free (Should You Forgive?, September 15, 2015).'

            So, forgiveness isn't magic.  It's an expression of love.  It requires us to focus on our love, not on our hurt.  We must grant it in love, and expect it from God through our love for the Divine.  It's not easy, but it's worth it.