Category Archives: Yom Kippur

Who By Tongue

I had always thought that I knew the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz (or Mayence), whose poignant prayer-poem “U’nsaneh Tokef” is solemnly recited on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Several years ago, though, I discovered something about the account that I had overlooked, and was struck by the irony it holds.

The liturgical poem, of course, pictures the scene of the new year’s Divine judgment of all mortals, with the Ultimate Judge opening the book of their deeds, in which “the signature of every man” is inscribed and which “will read itself.”  The judgment is pronounced: “who will live and who will die,” and how; who will “live undisturbed, and who in turmoil”; “who will be laid low, and who raised high.” It is a chilling passage to recite – and the haunting melody to which it is traditionally sung only adds to its poignancy, sending chills down any spine connected to a functioning head. And the prayer’s final words, “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree,” chanted loudly by the entire congregation, are a font of inspiration to be better in the coming days of the year just arrived.

The story behind the composition, as I had known it from the old machzor I had used as a teenager, was that a certain Rabbi Amnon, who lived in the 11th century, was pressured by the Archbishop of Mainz to convert to Christianity.  The rabbi refused repeatedly but on one occasion asked for three days’ time to consider the offer, a stalling tactic he immediately regretted, as he realized he had given the clergyman hope that he might abandon his ancestral faith.

When Rabbi Amnon didn’t visit the clergyman at the end of the three days, he was forcibly taken to him.  When it was clear that he would not waiver from his faith, the archbishop, deeply disappointed, had Rabbi Amnon’s fingers and toes amputated one by one, pausing before each drop of the sword to allow the rabbi to change his mind.  He didn’t, and was returned to his home, along with his twenty amputated limbs.

On Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Amnon asked to be carried, along with his body parts, into the synagogue, and at an important point in the service, before Kedusha, asked the cantor to pause.  The silent lull was broken by the tortured man’s intonation of U’nsaneh Tokef, after which he died. Several days later, another rabbi, Kalonymus ben Meshulam, had a dream in which Rabbi Amnon taught him the words of the prayer.

The account comes to us from the famous 13th century halachic work Ohr Zarua, written by Rabbi Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna. Several years ago I took the trouble to read the Ohr Zarua’s actual words recounting the event.

What I hadn’t known was that when Rabbi Amnon was brought before the archbishop, the rabbi told the clergyman that he wanted to be punished – not for refusing the Christian’s urging to convert but rather for giving the impression that he had even considered such a thing.  “Cut out my tongue,” he told the archbishop.  The clergyman, however, saw Rabbi Amnon’s sin as his refusal to come as he had promised, hence he chose his own punishment for the rabbi, the one that was meted out.

And so the priest, while he tortured the Jew grievously, left his victim’s tongue in place.

The Talmud teaches us that the Jew’s power lies not in his hands – that is Esav’s domain – but rather in his words, his prayer.

And, indeed, Rabbi Amnon, denied the excision of his tongue he had requested, went on to utilize it well – the result being U’nsaneh Tokef.  The irony is striking.  The part of his body he regretted having misused became the holy instrument of his contribution to Jewish liturgy, to Jewish life, to the inspiration of millions of Jews over the generations since.

And so all of us who, as we read the words Rabbi Amnon composed, are moved by them to make even some small change for the better in our lives in the new Jewish year are thereby contributing, across the centuries, to Rabbi Amnon’s personal repentance.  And are joining, in small but real ways, in his sanctification of the name of G-d.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Dispatching the Goat

One of the most remarkable elements of Yom Kippur in ancient times, when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the Two Goats.”

Two indistinguishable members of that species were brought before the High Priest, who placed a randomly-pulled lot on the head of each animal.  One lot read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – the name of a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was solemnly sacrificed in the Temple, attention given to every detail of the offering; the second was taken to the cliff and thrown off, dying unceremoniously before even reaching the bottom.

Some moderns might find the fates of both goats troubling, but there are depths to Jewish rituals of which they don’t dream.

I lay no claim to conversance with those truly deep meanings.  But pondering the “two goats” ritual before Yom Kippur (and anticipating its recollection during the day’s prayer-service), a thought occurs, and it may bear particular import for our times.

There are two ways to view human life, as mutually exclusive as they are fundamental.  Our existence is either a result of intent, or of accident.  And a corollary follows directly: Either our lives are meaningful, or they are not.

If the roots of our existence ultimately lie in pure randomness, there can be no more meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad movies; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left.  Human beings remain but evolved animals, their Mother Theresas and Adolf Hitlers alike.  To be sure, we might conceive a rationale for establishing societal norms, but a social contract is only a practical tool, not a moral imperative; it is, in the end, artificial.  Only if there is a Creator in the larger picture can there be ultimate import to human life, placing it on a plane meaningfully above that of mosquitoes.

The Torah, of course, is based on the foundation – and in fact begins with an account – of a Divinely directed creation; and its most basic message is the meaningfulness of human life.  Most of us harbor a similar, innate conviction.

Yet some resist that innate feeling, and adopt the perspective that what we can perceive with our physical senses is all that there is in the end.  The apparent randomness of nature, in that approach, leaves no place for Divinity.  It is not a difficult position to maintain; the Creator may be well evident to those of us primed to perceive Him, but He has not left clear fingerprints on His Creation.

Might those two diametric worldviews be somehow reflected in the Yom Kippur ritual?

The goat that becomes a sacrifice on the Temple altar might symbolize recognition of the idea that humans are beholden to something greater.  And the counter-goat, which finds its fate in a desolate, unholy place, would then allude to the perspective of life as pointless, lacking higher purpose or meaning.

It’s not an unthinkable speculation, especially in light of how the Azazel-goat seems to be described by the Torah – so strangely – as carrying away the sins of the people.

The traditional Jewish commentaries all wonder at that concept.  Some, including Maimonides, interpret it to mean that the people will be spurred by the dispatching of the Azazel-goat to repent.

If, indeed, the Azazel-goat alludes to the mindset of meaninglessness, we might approach an understanding of the inspiration born of its dispatching.  The animal’s being “laden with the sins” of the people might refer to the recognition that sin stems from insufficient recognition of how meaningful in fact are our lives.  The Talmudic rabbi Resh Lakish in fact said as much when he observed [Sotah 3a] that “A person does not sin unless a spirit of madness enters him.”

And so the sending off of the Azazel-goat could be seen as an acknowledgement of the idea that sin’s roots lie in the madness born of our self-doubt.  And those who witnessed its dispatchment might well have been spurred by that thought to then turn and consider the other goat, the one sacrificed in dedication to G-d.  So stirred on the holiest day of the Jewish year, they might then have been able to better commit themselves to re-embracing the grand meaningfulness that is a human life.

We may lack the Two Goats ritual today, but we can certainly try all the same to absorb that eternally timely thought.

© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Matrix

Your child damages a neighbor’s property, you feel responsible.

But that can mean two distinct things.  Either, simply, that as the child’s parent you consider yourself where the buck stops.

Or it may mean something deeper.  If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Jones’ picture window but rather aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remarks you made – you should feel responsible in much more than the buck-stopping sense.

The Jewish concept of “arvus,” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simple, sense of responsibility.  Jews are to regard other Jews as family, and therefore to feel responsible for one another.

But, the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler teaches, Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.  When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness.  And the converse is no less true.  Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Jericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Joshua, 7:1).  Explains Rabbi Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to the Divine commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

The much publicized arrests last month of several Jews, amid a larger group, on a variety of financial charges caused all sensitive Jews acute embarrassment.  But the vivid image of Jews – religious ones, no less – being carted off by federal agents needs to do something more than embarrass us.  It needs to spur us.

Not because we have any right to assume the worst about the accused; we don’t.  And if in fact there were violations of the law, we don’t know the circumstances, the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us).  Trial by Tabloid is not Jewish jurisprudence.

But the images themselves must make us think.  In particular about other, confirmed, cases of Jews – including religiously observant ones – who have in fact engaged in “white collar” crime.  Not to mention several identifiably Jewish, if not particularly religious, Jews who have even achieved broad notoriety for their societal sins.

And so, the deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater sins subsequently came to grow.

Every child who received a Jewish education knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke, or charity box, is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the commandment to give charity.  It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is a sin.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix.  And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows.

What is more, even those of us who are innocent of any financial indiscretions might also be unwitting contributors to the critical criminal mass.  Because things other than money can also be “stolen.”

The Torah speaks, for example, about two forms of oppressive practices (ona’ah): financial (as in overcharging) and personal (as in causing pain to others with words).  The Talmud also calls the act of misleading another person “stealing knowledge” (g’neivas da’as); and considers it “robbery” to not return another’s greeting.  Halachic decisors, moreover, note the forbiddance to “steal sleep” – to wake someone unnecessarily or to keep him up when he wants to retire.

So even those of us whose financial ledgers are in order would do well to introspect.  Are we sufficiently careful not to use words in hurtful ways, entirely meticulous in advice we offer, fully responsive to the good will of others, truly cautious about not disturbing their peace?  If not, then we are – in a subtle but real way – part of the perp-walk picture ourselves.

Yom Kippur approaches.  Jews the world over will repeatedly recite two confessional prayers, “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.”  Both, oddly, are in the first person plural.  It is a collective “we” who have sinned.  As the commentaries explain, that is because, among Jews, even sins of which the individual supplicant may be personally innocent, implicate us all.

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Who We Are

The famous early 20th century German-born American financier Otto Kahn, it is told, was once walking in New York with his friend, the humorist Marshall P. Wilder.  They must have made a strange pair, the poised, dapper Mr. Kahn and the bent-over Mr. Wilder, who suffered from a spinal deformity.

As they passed a synagogue on Fifth Avenue, Kahn, whose ancestry was Jewish but who received no Jewish training from his parents, turned to Wilder and said, “You know, I used to be a Jew.”

“Really?” said Wilder. “And I used to be a hunchback.”

The story is in my head because Yom Kippur is coming.  More specifically, Kol Nidrei.

That prayer’s solemnity and power are known well to every Jew who has ever attended the pre-evening service that ushers in the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.  It is a cold soul that does not send a shudder to the body it inhabits when Kol Nidrei is intoned in its ancient, eerie melody.  And yet the words of the prayer – “declaration” would be more accurate – do not overtly speak to the gravity of the day, the end of the period of repentance and Divine judgment.

They speak instead to the annulment of vows, specifically (according to prevailing Ashkenazi custom) to undermining vows we may inadvertently make in the coming year.

Vows, or verbalized commitments, the Torah teaches, have deep power; they truly bind those who utter them.   And so, observant Jews take pains to avoid not only solemn vows but any declarative statements of intent that could be construed as vows.  That Yom Kippur would be introduced by a nod to the gravity of vow-making isn’t terribly surprising.  But the poignant mournfulness of the moment is harder to understand.

It has been speculated that the somber mood of Kol Nidrei may be a legacy of other places and times, in which Jews were coerced by social or economic pressures, or worse, to declare affiliations with other religions.  The text, in that theory, took on the cast of an anguished renunciation of any such declarations born of duress.

Most Jews today face no such pressures.  To be sure, missionaries of various types seek to exploit the ignorance of some Jews about their religious heritage.  But most of us today do not feel any compulsion to shed our Jewish identities to live and work in peace.

Still and all, there are other ways to be unfaithful to one’s essence.  Coercion comes in many colors.

We are all compelled, or at least strongly influenced, by any of a number of factors extrinsic to who we really are.  We make pacts – unspoken, perhaps, but not unimportant – with an assortment of devils: self-centeredness, jealousy, anger, desire, laziness…

Such weaknesses, though, are with us but not of us.  The sage Rabbi Alexandri, the Talmud teaches (Berachot, 17a), would recite a short prayer in which, addressing G-d, he said: “Master of the universes, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to do Your will, and what prevents us is the ‘leaven in the loaf’ [i.e. the inclination to do bad] …”  What he was saying is that, stripped of the rust we so easily attract, sanded down to our essences, we want to do and be only good.

Might Kol Nidrei carry that message no less?  Could its declared disassociation from vows strike our hearts as a renunciation of the “vows”, the unfortunate connections, we too often take upon ourselves?  If so, it would be no wonder that the prayer moves us so.

Or that it introduces Yom Kippur.

One of the day’s most remarkable elements in ancient times, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, was the ritual of “the two goats.”  The High Priest would place a lot on the head of each animal; one read “to G-d” and the other “to Azazel” – according to Rashi, the name of a mountain with a steep cliff in a barren desert.

As the Torah prescribes, the first goat was sacrificed to G-d in the Temple; the second was taken through the desert to the cliff and cast off.

The Torah refers to “sins and iniquities” being “put upon the head” of the Azazel goat before its dispatch.  The deepest meanings of the ritual, like those of all Jewish rituals in the end, are beyond human ken.  But, on a simple level, it might not be wrong to see a symbolism here, a reflection of the fact that our sins are, in the end, foreign to our essences, extrinsic entities, things to be “sent away,” banished by our sincere repentance.

In 1934, when Otto Kahn died, Time Magazine reported that the magnate, who had been deeply dismayed at the ascension of Hitler, had, despite his secularist life, declared “I was born a Jew, I am a Jew, and I shall die a Jew.”

Considering his upbringing and way of life, it is unlikely that Mr. Kahn ever attended Kol Nidrei services.  But perhaps a seed planted by a humorist and nourished with the bitter waters of Nazism helped him connect to something of the prayer’s meaning.  May we all merit that same connection.

© 2009 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Momentous Moments

The weeks before a presidential election provide spiritual fodder for the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Throughout political campaigns, candidates and their handlers are keenly aware of the great toll a simple gaffe or misjudgment can take.  Four years ago, Howard Dean, the then-governor of Vermont (today Democratic National Committee chairman) was a credible candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

But he crashed and burned, according to many because of what came to be dubbed his “I Have a Scream” speech.  After an unexpectedly weak showing in the Iowa caucus, Dr. Dean declared his undeterred determination to forge on, in a rousing address that culminated in a vocalization somewhere between a Zulu war cry and a locomotive horn.  That single moment’s decision to let loose in that way at that juncture spelled the end of the doctor’s road to the highest office in the land.

There have been other such moments for presidential candidates: Edmund Muskie’s tears of pain, Gary Hart’s infelicitous mugging for his “Monkey Business” snapshot, Michael Dukakis’s donning of an ill-fitting combat helmet.  Each unguarded moment, deservedly or not, brought a national campaign to a screeching halt.

Every one of us, too, in our personal lives, comes face to face at times with opportunities of our own that, wrongly handled, can lead to places we don’t want to go.

And we are vying for something infinitely more important than a mere nomination for President.  We’re in the running, after all, for the achievement of worth, racing to achieve meaning in our lives.

In the bustle and haste of everyday existence, it is alarmingly easy to forget that decisions we make, sometimes almost unthinkingly, can be crucial; that seemingly insignificant forks in the roads of our lives can lead either to achievement and holiness, or, G-d forbid, to setbacks, even ruin.

Every single decision we make, of course, is important.  Each day of our lives presents occasions for choices, chances to seize meaningful things – a mitzvah, a heartfelt prayer, an act of charity – or to forgo them.  Every opportunity to be morose or angry is a chance to hurt others, and ourselves – and likewise a chance to do neither, and achieve something priceless.

But there are also particularly momentous opportunities, when we are presented with roads that diverge in entirely different directions.  The Talmud teaches that “one can acquire his universe” – the one that counts: the world-to-come – or “destroy” it “in a single moment.”

Potentially transformative decisions are more common to our lives than we may realize.  When we make a decision about, say, where to live or what synagogue to attend – not to mention more obviously critical decisions like whom to marry or how to raise and educate our children – we are defining our futures, and others’.  And it is of great importance that we recognize the import of our decisions, and accord them the gravity they are due.

We can even, through sheer determination, create our own critical moments.  Consider the Talmudic case of the “conditional husband.”

In Jewish law, a marriage is effected by the proposal of a man to a woman – the declaration of the woman’s kiddushin, or “specialness” to her husband, followed by the acceptance by the woman of a coin or item of worth from her suitor.  If the declaration is made on the condition that an assertion is true, the marriage is valid only if the assertion indeed is.  Thus, if a man betroths a woman on the condition that he owns a car, or still has his own teeth, unless he does, they aren’t married.

What if a man offers a woman a coin or item and makes the kiddushin-declaration “on the condition that I am a tzaddik,” a “totally righteous person”?  The Talmud informs us that even if the man in question has no such flawless reputation the marriage must be assumed to be valid (and only a divorce can dissolve it).

Why?  Because, the Talmud explains, the man “may have contemplated repentance” just before his proposal.

That determined choice of a moment, in other words, if sincere, would have transformed the man completely, placed him on an entirely new life-road.  The lesson is obvious: Each of us can transform himself or herself – at any point we choose – through sheer, sincere will.

This season of the Jewish year, our tradition teaches, is particularly fertile for making choices, for embarking on new roads.  All we need are the sensitivity and wisdom to be open to crucial opportunities, and the determination to craft some of our own – to make choices that will change our lives and futures for the holier.

© 2008 Rabbi Avi Shafran