Category Archives: Holidays

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The Riddle of the Fours

Four questions. Four sons. Four expressions of geulah.

Four cups of wine. Dam (=44) was placed, in Mitzrayim, on the doorway (deles, “door,” being the technical spelling of what we call the letter daled, whose value is four).

Let us move fourward – please forgive (fourgive?) me! – on the question of… why.

The chachamim who formulated the Haggadah intended it to plant important concepts in the hearts and minds of its readers – especially its younger ones, toward whom the Seder, our mesorah teaches, is particularly aimed.

Which it why the Seder persists, not only in the memories of all who are reading this, but in those of countless Jews who have strayed far from our mesorah.  So many Jews who are, tragically, alienated from virtually every other Jewish observance still feel compelled to have at least some sort of Seder, to read a Haggadah, or even – if they have drifted too far from their heritage to comfortably confront the original – to compose their own “versions.”  (I once, long ago, joked before a group that a “Vegetarian Haggadah” would likely appear any year now, and someone in attendance later showed me precisely such a book – though it lacked the “Paschal Turnip” I had imagined.)

Part of the brilliance of the Haggadah is its employ of “child-friendly” elements.  Not just to entertain the young people at the Seder and keep them awake, but to subtly plant the seeds of important ideas in their minds and hearts.  Dayeinu and Chad Gadya and Echad Mi Yodea are not pointless; they are pedagogy – and of the most effective sort.

There are riddles, too, in the Haggadah.  Like the Puzzle of the Ubiquitous Fours.

The most basic and urgent concept the Seder experience is meant to impart to young Jews is that Yetzias Mitzrayim forged something vital: our peoplehood.  It, in other words, created Klal Yisrael.

Before the event that we celebrate on the Seder night took place, a multitude of Yaakov Avinu’s descendants were in Mitzrayim. Each individual rose or fell on his or her own merits.  And not all of them. Chazal teach us, merited to leave Mitzrayim.  Those who did, though, who emerged from their blood-adorned doorways and passed through the channel of the Yam Suf, were reborn as something new: a people.

And so, at the Seder, we seek to instill in our children the realization that they are not mere individuals but rather parts of an interwoven whole, members of a nation unconstrained by geographical boundaries but inexorably linked by history, destiny and Hashem’s love.  We impress our charges with the fact that they are links in a shimmering ethereal chain stretching back to when our people was divinely redeemed from mundane slavery in Egypt and then entered a sublime servitude of a very different sort – to HaKadosh Boruch Hu – at Har Sinai.

Thus, the role we adults play on Pesach night, vis a vis the younger Jews with whom we share the experience, is a very precise one.  We are teachers, to be sure, but it is not information that we are communicating; it is identity.  Although the father of the home may be conducting the Seder, he is acting not in his normative role as teacher of Torah but rather in something more akin to a maternal role, as a nurturer of the neshamos of the children present, an imparter of identity.  And thus, in a sense, he is acting in a maternal role.

Mothers, of course, are the parents who most effectively mold their children, who most make them who they are.  That, interestingly, parallels the halachic determinant of Jewish identity, which is dependent on mothers.  While a Jew’s shevet follows the paternal line, whether one is a member of Klal Yisrael or not depends entirely on maternal status.

The Haggadah may itself contain the solution to the riddle of the fours. It’s only speculation, but it has long struck me as having the ring of emes.  The recurrent numerical theme in our exquisite Haggadah, employed each year to instill Jewish identity might be reflective of that halachic status-determinant, and, at the same time, reminding us of the inestimable importance of mothers.

Because the Haggadah, after all, has its own number-decoder built right in, toward its end, where most good books’ resolutions take place.  We’re a little hazy once it’s reached, after four kosos and all, but it’s unmistakably there, in “Echad Mi Yodea” – the Seder-song that provides Jewish associations with numbers.

“Who knows four?…”

© 2017 Hamodia

The Sukkah Still Stands

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song, really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I – and surely others – invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

 

A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

 

In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”

 

Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

As we approach the yomtov of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the midbar, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our tefillos as zman simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days.  “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.  Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world.  Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot.  The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

Under The Weather

With hurricane season upon us, we might learn something from the models that meteorologists offer when a large sea-storm heads for land.  Something about Shemini Atzeres.

The maps created as a storm approaches often include colored lines indicating the projected paths of the hurricane as predicted by different models, each based on its own sets of data and methodology.  The combined yield looks suspiciously like, though not as appetizing as, spaghetti.  Only one model (if even that) will end up “winning” the prediction contest.  And, as likely as not, the next storm around, a different model, based on different calculations, will emerge as the retroactively prophetic one.

“Cause and effect” is a basic principle of modern science.  By observing what seems to make happenings happen, we can predict, at least theoretically and if in possession of sufficient information, almost anything.

Weather forecasting, despite mountains of data gleaned from satellites, weather stations and previous storms, cannot even generally predict a storm’s movement or intensity beyond a day or two.

That might be attributed to the sheer amount of information needed to make a weather forecast, and the complexity of combining all the necessary elements.  There is what has whimsically been called the “Butterfly Effect” (and more soberly, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”) – the idea that even something like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Asia might have an effect on the course of a storm in the Carolinas.

But something deeper and more subtle is at work, too.  An accepted idea in modern physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, has it that at the most fundamental strata of physical matter, there is a limit to what can be known.  The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.  So there is an inherent element of unknowableness (well, there should be such a word) in the matter comprising the universe.

What we call nature, in other words, isn’t truly predictable, or even “natural.”  Nature is just the word we use to describe miracles we’ve come to take for granted.

Consider the weird world Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, asks us to imagine, where the deceased routinely arise from their graves rejuvenated, but grain and vegetation do not exist.

In the thought experiment, a man appears holding a seed, something never seen before in this strange place.  He loosens some soil and places the tiny kernel into the ground.  The locals wonder at the oddity –why is he burying a pebble? – and are astonished when, several days later, a green sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned.  When it develops into a full-fledged plant, even – most shocking of all – bearing seeds of its own, the onlookers are flabbergasted.

Techiyas hameisim will be similarly amazing to those who will witness it, observes Rav Dessler.  What is more, in our world, a seed’s growth is itself no less a miracle, willed from above. The numerical equivalent of the word “hateva,” – “the [realm of] nature” –sefarim hakedoshim  note, equals Elokim.

Miracles we haven’t previously experienced impress us.  Miracles we live with daily are harder to appreciate.  “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” wrote the poet R. W. Emerson, “how would men believe and adore…!”

Or as famed physicist Paul Davies wrote a few years back, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

The miraculous, in other words, is ubiquitous, even if the phantom of predictability lessens our appreciation of it.  Weather, though, with its fickleness, reminds us of what we easily forget: that uncertainty is the real rule, underlying even the very building blocks of matter.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “rain,” geshem, means “physical matter” as well.

There is a human entity, too, that eludes predictability.  Empires and nations rise and fall, never to rise again.  Populations are exiled from their lands and never return.  Those are “natural” rules of history.  You know the exception.

The number eight, the Maharal teaches, represents the miraculous, what lies beyond what we call nature.  Klal Yisrael, the Midrash says, is the partner of Shabbos, and hence, in a sense, the “eighth day.”

In the time of the Beis Hamikdash, on Shemini Atzeres, the “Eighth Day Festival,” after the Sukkos offerings of 70 parim representing the nations of the world, a single par, representing a singular nation, was offered.

That, on the day when we remind ourselves that there really isn’t any independent entity called “nature” – focusing on the wonder that is Klal Yisrael, and, in Tefillas Geshem, on the wonder that is rain.

© 2016 Hamodia

When “Right” Is Wrong

There is a social media page titled “Justice for Harambe,” Harambe being the gorilla that was shot to death in the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into its enclosure.  The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder.” Within hours of its posting, the sentiment was endorsed by more than 41,000 people.

Over in the Netherlands, a woman in her 20s was recently cleared by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission for assisted suicide, because of “incurable post-traumatic-stress disorder” brought about by abuse she suffered as a child.  Although she had experienced improvements after intensive therapy, the doctors judged her to be “totally competent” to end her life.

And Shavuos is coming.

That was not a non sequitur.  Because the first day of Shavuos, zman mattan Torahseinu, falls on the first day of next week.  Had the Tzaddukim and Baitusim been successful in their quest to fix the date of Shavuos, however, it would always fall on that day.  Still confused about the connection?

It’s subtle but clear.  During the Bayis Sheini era, those groups asserted that it would best serve people’s needs to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and, immediately thereafter, Shavuos.  (In Eretz Yisroel, of course, Shavuos is observed on a single day.)  And so they advocated amending the mesorah.

Although they provided a textual “basis” for their innovation, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety – two days in a row of rest just seemed “right.”

But the mesorah states otherwise, that the phrase “mimochoras haShabbos” in the passuk that tells us when to begin counting Sefiras HaOmer, does not mean “the day after Shabbos,” but rather the day following the first day of Pesach.  And so, Shavuos can fall on days other than Sunday.

The desire to supplant the mesorah with what “seems” to “enlightened minds” more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism.  The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, advocating that the ketores brought in the Kodesh Kodashim be set alight before the kohen’s entry into the room, rather than afterward, as the mesorah teaches.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, the Gemara explains, by “what seemed right.”  To wit, they argued, “Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him?  One brings it in already hot and steaming!”

In both the date of Shavuos and the avodas Yom Kippur, the mesorah was defended assiduously by the Perushim, the champions of the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The Tzaduki mindset, however and unfortunately, lives on.

The perceiving of animals as equals to humans – based on the perception of humans as mere animals – seems “right” to many.  The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer famously contended that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

That same outlook sees the ending of an adult human life as a simple matter of “choice,” to be exercised by an individual as he or she sees fit.  Professor Singer has in fact advocated the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

Such placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems right” – above the received truths of the Torah stands in precise opposition to the message of Shavuos, when our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.”

That is the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of Hashem’s will even amid a lack of our own “hearing,” or understanding.  “We will do Your will,” our ancestors pledged, “even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a ‘better idea’.”  Call it a declaration of dependence – of our trust in Hashem’s judgment over our own.

And so, as we approach Shavuos amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of “ethical” and “moral” opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues – not only in the larger world but even in the Jewish community, even in groups calling themselves “Orthodox” – we do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to “decide” what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for the guidance of our mesorah.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, in our personal lives and our communal ones alike, we echo our ancestors’ words at Har Sinai, declaring, as did they, that man is not the arbiter of right and wrong; our Creator is. 

© 2016 Hamodia

Liberation Theology

In the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should depict Moshe Rabbeinu at the Yam Suf, his staff lifted high and the Mitzriyim drowning in the sea.  Jefferson urged a different design: Klal Yisrael marching through the Midbar, led by amud ha’eish and amud he’anan, the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke.

American slaves in the 19th century famously adopted the imagery and language of Yetzias Mitzrayim to express the hopes they harbored to one day be free.  In one famous spiritual, they sang of “When Israel was in Egypt land… oppressed so hard they could not stand,” punctuating each phrase with the refrain “Let My people go.”

Similar references to our ancestors’ liberation from Mitzrayim informed the American labor and civil rights movements as well.  In his celebrated “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King pined to “watch G-d’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt… on toward the promised land.”  And he sought to assure American blacks that “the Israelites” suffered much before gaining their freedom, and so neither should his listeners give up hope.

It says much that so many have modeled their aspirations on the Divine extraction of goy mikerev goy, “a nation from the midst of a nation” (Devarim 4:34).  To the Western world, the account of our ancestors’ release from slavery is the mother of all liberation movements.  And, at least in a way, one supposes, it is.

But the reading of freedom as mere release from repression is sorely incomplete.  Because after Shalach es ami, “Let my people go,” comes a most important additional word: viyaavduni – “so that they may serve Me” (Shmos 9:1).  Klal Yisrael wasn’t merely taken from slavery to “freedom,” in the word’s simplest sense.  We were taken from meaningless, onerous oppression to… a different servitude, the most meaningful kind imaginable: serving Hashem.

The Hebrew word for freedom, of course, is cheirus, evoking the word charus, “inscribed,” the word the Torah uses to describe the etching of the words on the Luchos, the “Tablets of the Law.”  Chazal see a profound truth in the two words’ similarity, and teach us: “The only free person is the one immersed in Torah.”

What in the world, others might ask us, does immersion in an intellectually taxing corpus of abstruse texts, subtle ideas and legal/ritual minutiae have to do with freedom?

They would claim to feel most free lying on beach chairs in their back yards on a day off from work, sunshine on their faces and cold beverages within reach, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to do.  And, to be sure, there are in fact times when we all need to relax, to recharge.  But that’s not the meaning of freedom, at least not in the Torah’s view.

In the words of Iyov, adam l’amal yulad, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  What we simplemindedly think of as “freedom” is not true cherus.  We’re here to labor, to study, to control ourselves, to apply ourselves, to accomplish things. Our “freedom” is release from the meaningless servitude some pledge to a master like money, chemicals, or this or that transient pleasure; and entry into meaningful servitude to something transcendent.

Truth be told, the freedom touted by “the velt” doesn’t even yield the fulfillment it promises. Or even happiness.  Winning the lottery and moving to Monaco to indulge one’s whims may be a common daydream, but, as countless accounts have borne witness, release from economic straits and the embrace of hedonism have yielded more suicides than serenity.

True freedom, ironically, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to our Divine mandate liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and brings true fulfillment, true joy.

Yesh chachmah bagoyim, Chazal tell us.  Listen to the words of the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

What a perceptive mashal, and how inadvertently apt.

Because when our forebears were released from Egyptian bondage, as they prepared to embark on their path to viyaavduni, they paused to sing a song, Shiras Hayam.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Evidence in the Barrel

Back in a previous lifetime, when I was a mesivta rebbe, I once heard a menahel exhort our talmidim to not get carried away on Purim.  As an illustration, he described how a certain Gadol on Purim simply went into his backyard and swung back and forth on a children’s swing.  The implication was that the Gadol hadn’t imbibed much.  I wasn’t so sure, myself. Ad d’lo yoda can express itself in different ways.

One thing is certain.  Kedoshim u’tehorim on Purim, unleashed from the constraints of full daas,  are more often seen singing and dancing spiritedly, even wildly, sharing divrei Torah and divrei sod that one might not ever hear from them the rest of the year.

Needless to say, and unfortunately, some who are less kadosh or tahor can overindulge on Purim and come to act very differently.  They may imbibe stronger things than wine (the preferred mitzvah) in excess, even to the degree of actually endangering themselves.  That is nothing short of a horrific Purim mask, an aveirah in the guise of a mitzvah.

But when the mitzvah is done right, though, even if the results are something more… well, dynamic than a placid visit to a backyard swing, something important about Klal Yisrael can be revealed.  After all, Rabi Iloi (Eruvin 65b) tells us that one way a person’s essence can be discerned is “in his cup,” in his behavior when inebriated.

Something so important, in fact, that I once witnessed a Purim celebration causing an Italian cook at a yeshivah where I once taught to investigate geirus.  By her admission, she told me that, over the years, she “had seen many people very drunk, but never so many people so drunk – without any fighting.”  All she saw was celebration, friendship, good humor and happiness, and that, she said, had impressed her beyond words.  (She was nevertheless dissuaded from her geirus plan.)

Chazal teach us (Shabbos, 88a) that something was lacking at Mattan Torah, and the lack only remedied centuries later in the Persian Empire.

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa tells us there that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis [a barrel]” to force them to accept the Torah.  One approach to that statement is that it refers to the experience of being directly addressed by the Borei Olam.  Receiving direct communication from Hashem was so overwhelming, so traumatic, so crushing – after all, it caused our ancestors’ souls to leave them, and brought them to beg Moshe to be the only one to directly receive the final eight dibros – that it simply left no other choice but to accept His mission.

Experiencing the Divine fully does not leave one with truly free will to say “no.”

Rabbah comments that the “coercion” remained a remonstration against Klal Yisrael, that it colored our acceptance of the Torah as less than willful – until the “days of Achashverosh.”

For it was then that the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where there was no “mountain” held over their heads, where it was not only not overwhelming but not even obvious.  Our ancestors chose to see Divine Providence in seemingly mundane, if alarming, political happenings, took the events to heart as a message from Above, and responded with tefillah, taanis and teshuvah.  Thus, kiymu mah shekiblu kvar, they “completed” Mattan Torah, supplied what had been missing. The nation truly perceived Hashem, not only in thunder and lightning but in words inscribed on parchment and in a signet ring removed from a royal hand.

Moving back to what is revealed when Yidden have a proper simchas Purim, I’ve often wondered about Rav Avdimi’s strange choice of imagery. “Holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel.”  Wouldn’t a mountain looming above be galvanizing enough?  What’s with the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Gemara, is a container for an intoxicating beverage.  Chazal’s description of the implement of coercion at Har Sinai, in other words, is a beer-barrel.

Rabi Meir in Pirkei Avos (4:20) admonishes us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” It wouldn’t seem outlandish to perceive some pertinence of that admonition to the gigis to which Har Sinai is compared. Or, in turn, to Purim, when wine allows the essence of Klal Yisrael, our truest nature, to be revealed.

Don’t dwell, Rabi Meir may be saying, on our compromised acceptance of Hashem at Har Sinai in a state of coercion, but rather at our wholehearted, free-willed embrace of Him in our states of mindless purity.

Enjoy!

Each year, sitting in the sukkah on the first night of Sukkos, with my wife and whoever among our children and grandchildren we are fortunate to have with us for Yom Tov, I feel a particularly intense elation.  Part of it, no doubt, is the result of having managed to erect the sukkah on time.  But most of it is born, simply but powerfully, of having so many family members around the table.  For many years, though, ironically, my joy also bothered me.

After all, I reasoned, simchas Yom Tov, the happiness we are commanded to feel on a holiday – particularly on Sukkos, “the time of our happiness,” is meant to be, well, simchas Yom Tov, not delight in one’s family.

But then, one year, I reached a more refined understanding of simchas Yom Tov.  And I’ve never thought about it quite the same since.

The first hint that there was something here to discover lay in Chazal’s description of how we are to fulfill simchas Yom Tov.  The Rambam (Hilchos Shvisas Yom Tov, 6:18), basing his words on the Gemara (Pesachim 109a), instructs a man to buy his wife new clothing and jewelry, to give his young children nosherai and to himself enjoy meat and wine.  (Before splurging on that special Cabernet, though, bear in mind the Kaf Hachaim’s admonition that precedence here should be given to one’s wife’s pleasure.)  So it’s clear that simchas Yom Tov is defined as taking joy in plainly physical pleasures.  What gives?

The Sefer Hachinuch on the mitzvah of celebrating Sukkos echoes the oddity. “The days of the holiday,” he writes in Mitzvah 324, “are days of great happiness to Jews, since it is a time of gathering into the house the grain and fruit, and people are naturally happy.”

But then he subtly addresses the issue of how physical pleasures can constitute simchas Yom Tov: “And so Hashem has commanded His people to celebrate at that time, to allow them the merit of turning the essence of the happiness to Him.”

A striking Midrash (cited by Rashi) on a chapter of Tehillim we recite twice daily this time of year, elucidates the passuk “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and Hashem has gathered me in” (27:10).   Dovid Hamelech, says the Midrash, was stating that his parents’ focus was on their personal relationship; it was about themselves, not him.  In that sense, explains the Midrash, they “abandoned” him.

But stop and think a moment.  Dovid’s father was Yishai – one of the three personages who Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55b) “died by the counsel of the nachash,” the serpent in Gan Eden.  In other words, he was personally without sin.  And yet he is being described as, in some way, selfish?

What occurs is that there is an inescapable aspect of self-awareness (the result, likely, of the nachash’s “success” in Gan Eden) and self-concern that is part and parcel of being human.  To lack it is to be an angel.  Or, perhaps better, a mere angel.  Angels, after all, Chazal tell us, are static; humans, dynamic.

Even the most sublime of human beings have selves.  Even the ideal talmid chacham, represented by the Aron in the Mishkan, who is “gold” within and “gold” without, still has a core of wood – a symbol, it may well be, of the Eitz Hadaas, which bequeathed self-awareness in the first place.

And if a sense of self is an inherent part of being a human being, experiencing physical or emotional pleasure at times is normal and inevitable.  What the Chinuch may be telling us is that simchas Yom Tov means acknowledging that reality, embracing the pleasure of the harvest – and the joy born of the new clothing and the wine and the meat – but “grafting” it onto the spiritual, conscripting it toward the service of Hashem.  By doing that, we elevate the self.  We turn the things that make our “selves” happy toward the holy.

What happier moment could be imagined than when Yaakov Avinu was reunited with Yosef after 22 years of not knowing what had become of his beloved son.  The Midrash, brought by Rashi, has Yaakov reciting Shema at that moment.  Was he not overjoyed at the reunion?  Of course he was.  But he saw fit to graft his joy onto kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim.

So we should enjoy our meat and our wine, our wives and daughters their new clothes and jewelry, our young’uns their nosh.  And we should all consciously try to channel our enjoyment toward its Source.

© 2015 Hamodia

Eliyahu’s Double Plea

The Rambam’s logic, as always, is unassailable.  Miracles, he informs us (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1), simply cannot be bases of belief.  What appears to us as miraculous, he explains, could always be trickery or magic.  Or, we might add, as per the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, a “sufficiently advanced technology,” that will always be “indistinguishable from magic.”

To be sure, a miracle can be temporarily impressive, as the Rambam goes on to clarify; and, more important, if sourced in the Divine, can be (like Krias Yam Suf, the be’er and the mann) vivid demonstrations of Hashem’s love and concern for His people.  But what lies at the root of Jewish belief, he states, is no miracle, but rather the revelation at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisrael experienced direct communication with the Creator.

The assertion that what appears miraculous cannot in itself prove anything about its source, though, seems frontally challenged by the narrative of the confrontation between the nevi’ei habaal and Eliyahu Hanavi at Har Hacarmel, recounted in Melachim I 18:1-39 (the haftarah of parashas Ki Sisa).

There, we read of how Eliyahu, in order to convince the Jews of the time to stop vacillating between Hashem and a false god, challenged the idolatrous priests to offer, as he would himself, a sacrifice.  A heavenly fire that would descend on one of the sacrifices would serve as Divine testimony.  Despite efforts of the idolaters to artificially create a “heavenly fire,” as a Midrash describes, and despite Eliyahu’s soaking of his own sacrifice with water, a fire descends from heaven and consumes the Navi’s offering.  The people are overwhelmed, and cry out “Hashem, He is G-d!  Hashem, He is G-d!”

How, though, to square that account with the Rambam’s words about the limitation of miracles? The answer may lie in a Gemara in Berachos (6a).  Eliyahu’s tefillah before the miracle includes the plea Aneini Aneini!– “Answer me!  Answer me!”  The double entreaty, explains the Gemara, refers to two separate requests, to “cause a fire to come down from heaven” and to “let not the people say that it was the result of magic!”

Far from a challenge to the Rambam’s contention, then, the Gemara’s elucidation greatly supports it.  It required a special request of Hashem that the people not dismiss the miracle as meaningless – which they, logically, had every right to do.  In other words, that the people regarded the miracle as meaningful was, in a sense, itself something of a miracle.

And, in fact, the conviction to which the people gave voice when the fire descended did not prove lasting.  Soon thereafter, Eliyahu despairs at the nation’s slipping back into its wrong ways.  Their inspiration at Har HaCarmel was powerful but, in the end, ephemeral.  It was based, after all, on a mere miracle.

The declaration “Hashem, He is G-d!”, of course, is what we call out seven times at Ne’ilah, at the very close of Yom Kippur.  How odd that a declaration that turned out to be short-lived should conclude our holiest day.

Could it be a subtle warning? A reminder that “spiritual highs” cannot in themselves ensure their own perseverance, that even a state of deep emotion requires “follow-up” determination if it is to be maintained?

The first opportunity to follow up, so to speak, after Ne’ilah is the Maariv that ensues after the thunderous “Hashem Hu HaElokim!”s. A kehillah that davens that first post-Yom Kippur tefillah meticulously and with kavanah is one that has had a successful day.

You may know the story told of the Baal Shem Tov’s horses.  The two animals were hitched up to the Besht’s wagon for a trip, but were unaware of the kefitzas haderech, or miraculous “shortening of the way,” that would take place on their journey.  When only a few minutes had elapsed as they passed a point that should have taken them a full day to reach, one horse said to the other, “Hmmm. I’m not even hungry.  We must not be horses but men!”

Then, when a second landmark unexpectedly went by, the other horse commented, “No, we’re even more than men.  We must be angels!”  And so the horses proudly trotted on, until they reached their destination ten hours – but many days’ journey – away.  By this point, they were famished and, led to a feeding trough, enthusiastically dug in to sate their hunger.

And so, the story ends, it was then that the horses knew, without any doubt, that they were horses.

On Yom Kippur, we withdraw from human activities and stand like angels.  When the day ends, though, tired and hungry, we know we are mere humans.

But, if we manage to carry our Ne’ilah recognition into Maariv and beyond, better ones.

© 2015 Hamodia