If there is one prayer that resonates in the heart of every Jew it is Kol Nidrei. The very tune is haunting yet enchanting, saddening yet uplifting. Yet, when one looks at the words – they seem to be anything but inspirational. Kol Nidrei is a form of Hataras Nedorim, revocation of vows. We begin the holiest day of the year by releasing ourselves from the vows of the past and proactively annulling the vows of the future. On a legal level this is very important as violating one’s vow is considered a severe transgression. We do whatever we can to repent and absolve ourselves of sin as we enter this sacred day. And still, we find ourselves confounded by a basic question: of all the beautiful prayers we have in our liturgy, why begin the holiest day of the year with revocation of vows? There are many prayers with moving words, prayers that capture the true essence of Yom Kippur; prayers that speak to the theme of purity and repentance. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use some of these prayers as the liturgical introduction to this holy day? Why do we begin with Kol Nidrei? What is the message?
Perhaps, to answer this question we must strive to understand the purpose and power of a neder (vow). The paradigmatic neder is the Nazirite vow. A person takes a vow to abstain from wine and cutting his hair. The Nazir is forgoing certain physical pleasures and choosing to place less emphasis on his “self.” Why would a person do such a thing? The Rabbis explain – because deep down he knows he can be something more, deep down he knows he possesses greatness within but needs the proper framework to extract it. He needs to shift the focus from pleasure seeking to purpose seeking. Sometimes in life we need a push; we need some level of tension to actualize our potential. This is the neder – the binding promise which creates the framework to allow the individual to access his internal reservoir of potential.
To take this one step further, perhaps, the neder can be viewed as a personal aspiration or dream. I know where I am now, and I know where I need to be; the neder is the vehicle to help me bridge the gap. The neder creates a legal reality in which I must actively work to actualize my dream/aspiration. But there is a danger in dreaming – many dreams fail to materialize, many dreams come crashing down, many dreams end in disappointment. When one experiences too many failed dreams, one loses his resolve and courage to dream any more. It is too hard to leave oneself open to hurt and feelings of failure; better to live without dreams than to dream and fail.
This coming Wednesday night when we enter the hallowed sanctity of Yom Kippur, we reflect on last year and realize that many of the things we wanted to do, we didn’t. Many of the dreams we had remain unrealized or worse, ended in failure. And so, the first thing we do on this sacred day is revocation of vows, Hataras Nedorim – we let go of our failed dreams. We let go of the unrealized dreams of last year. We let go because we will not allow ourselves to be burdened by the yolk of failed dreams. Carrying around these failures can be stifling. We let go in order to dream anew.
This is our mandate over Yom Kippur – dream a new dream! Ask yourself, who do I want to be? What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to accomplish? We unburden ourselves in order to fill our hearts and souls with new, magnificent and holy dreams for the coming year. There is no better, more appropriate way to start this special day than with the recitation of Kol Nidrei. (From 5774)
I hope and pray that we will each find the courage to dream a new dream. Let us hope that God sees the beauty in our dreams and gives us the strength to make them come true.
G’mar Chasima Tova and Good Shabbos
“For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, it is not far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ’Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell it to us, so that we can fulfill it?’ Rather, this thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.” (Devorim 30:11-14)
Which “commandment” was Moshe Rabbeinu referring to? Many of the commentaries explain that Moshe was not referring to one specific mitzvah, rather to the Torah in its entirety. Moshe was telling the people, although there are many mitzvos and expectations, do not get overwhelmed. There are many obligations and responsibilities, but you will succeed. Others explain that the mitzvah (commandment) refers to the mitzvah of Teshuva (repentance and return). Although we may stray far from God, the ability and opportunity to return and rekindle the relationship is always available to us.
Whatever the precise definition may be, the message is the same. Creating personal holiness, cultivating a spiritual identity, cementing a passionate relationship with God may seem difficult, all our spiritual aspirations are within reach.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov advances an alternate insight. Moshe says to the Jewish people:
Lo Ba’Shamayim Hi, (It is not in the heavens) God does not ask you to live in the heavens. God does not expect us to achieve angelic perfection, He does not ask us to stop being human and live in the celestial sphere. He doesn’t even demand of us to be wholly righteous.
What does God ask of us?
Ki Karov Eylecha HaDavar, (This thing is very close to you) Just reach a bit beyond yourself. Hashem wants us to grow. It doesn’t have to be in a dramatic or heroic growth, just be a little more, just become a bit holier each and every day. When Yaakov fled from home to escape the wrath of Esav, he received a magnificent vision. He saw a ladder with its base on the earth, yet its top extended into the heavens. What was the meaning of this vision? Yaakov was to be the father of the 12 tribes, the father of Bnai Yisroel, and God was communicating to him the Divine expectations of Yaakov’s offspring. God says to us: Life is a ladder – all I ask is that you try to advance up the rungs. You need not climb two at a time, you need not ascend at a quick pace, just climb. Just take the opportunities that are within reach (karov, close) and find a way to move yourself and your life forward.
This was one of the last messages Moshe gave to our ancestors. Moshe, who taught us so much, provided us with the Divine framework for successful living and concluded his tenure of leadership with a simple message. God doesn’t expect perfection, God doesn’t need us to be angels, He just wants us to grow. All Hashem desires is for us to climb the ladder of personal development and self-actualization.
As we enter the Yomim Noraim, we must feel confident and excited for the year ahead. There is much we must accomplish and much we must rectify. There are things which work well, things which need repair, and things which must be fundamentally changed. But we must remember Rome wasn’t built in a day. People aren’t built in a day. To fully actualize our potential takes years and for some an entire lifetime. Yet, all God asks of us is just a little growth every day. All my Father desires is for me to try to climb up another rung. And if I fall, all He asks is for me to find the courage to once again begin the ascent. Ki Karov Eylecha HaDavar, it is very close to us – happiness, fulfillment, and self-actualization are all closer than we think. All we need to do is reach a bit beyond ourselves.
IJC-Parsha Perspectives-Nitzavim from 5778I want to take this opportunity to wish each of you Kesiva V’Chasima Tova. May each of us, together with our families and our nation, be inscribed for year of life, growth, holiness, health, happiness, and redemption.
(Reprinted from 5778)
“When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities. Then you shall say before the Lord, your God, ’I have removed the holy [portion] from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten [them].’” (Devorim 26:12-13)
The Torah commands us to distribute various tithes to the Kohanim, Leviim and the poor. Different tithes apply throughout the 7-year agricultural cycle. In year three of this cycle, there is a process known as vidui maaser (confession of the tithes), during which the farmer “confesses” that he has properly distributed his tithes to the needy and tribe of Levi. There appears to be an extraneous phrase in this confession, “Nor have I forgotten.” What is the meaning of this statement? Is it not obvious the farmer has not forgotten? He just stated, “I have removed the holy portion from the house, I have given it to the Levite, the stranger…” What is the purpose of explicitly stating that he has not forgotten?
Rashi explains, “nor have I forgotten: to bless You [to recite the beracha (blessing) on the performance of the mitzvah] of separating tithes.” The great Kabbalist, Rav Yaakov Shaltiel, in his work titled Emes L’Yaakov, provides an incredible insight on this statement of Rashi. There are times when we are proficient in the automatous details of Torah and mitzvos yet fail to feel. We know what to do and how to do it, but lack excitement and passion. Our Judaic obligations offer us an opportunity to connect to the Divine and establish a meaningful relationship with God. But that relationship only occurs if we serve and perform with meaning and devotion. This dynamic is encapsulated in a beracha. The Talmud explains that in most situations, “berachos eynan mi’akvos,” failure to recite a blessing doesn’t compromise the validity or effectiveness of the mitzvah. If you blow the shofar and fail to make a beracha beforehand, you have still fulfilled the mitzvah. If you light your menorah and neglect to make a beracha beforehand, you have still fulfilled your obligation. If so, then what is the role of a beracha? It is a preparatory act to create a sense of excitement for what is about to occur. We make a beracha and say, Baruch Ata Hashem, God, you are the source of all blessing; Elokeinu Melech HaOlam, My God, the King of the Universe… With these words we are acknowledging that through this act we have the privilege of connection. With this act, we can establish a relationship with Hashem and connect to the infinite holiness of our Creator. This realization creates an intense passion and longing, and fundamentally transforms the act of the mitzvah from a mechanistic behavior to a service of devotion and excitement.
This is the deeper meaning of Rashi. The farmer says, “God, I have done all you have asked me, I separated and dispersed the tithes, I took care of Your children as You asked me to. I have adhered to all the details as You have commanded. But I have not forgotten. In the flurry of details and obligations, I haven’t forgotten what this mitzvah and all other mitzvos are really about – connection. I made my berachos, I have served You with excitement and passion. I have continuously recognized the privilege I have to forge a relationship with You through the performance of Your mitzvos. I have adhered to the details but have never forgotten to simultaneously stoke the spiritual fire of excitement.”
These are exciting and overwhelming days. As one year comes to a close and another is poised to begin we must introspect and examine our relationship with God. Too often we only look at this relationship though the lens of sin and salvation. This is important but is not the totality of our relationship. Many of us go through life and miss out on the awesome opportunity to have a truly meaningful and deep relationship with God. Our Judaism must be more than just doing good deeds and avoiding sin (again, very important), it must be about creating relationship, it must be about making berachos and infusing passion wherever we can. The first step in the process is a beracha. A beracha forces us to pause before we act and allows us the time to contemplate what we are about to do. If it is a beracha before the performance of a mitzvah, we can think about how this mitzvah affords us the opportunity to connect with God. If it is a beracha before eating, we can think about our relationships to the material world and if we are using our material wealth to bring us closer to God and our fellow man. The beracha provides us with the few moments of contemplation which then creates the opportunity for excitement and passion.
May we be privileged to make the farmer’s statement, “I have done all You have asked me”, and may we be privileged to always say, “nor have I forgotten.”
(Reprinted from 5778)
“כי תצא למלחמה על אויביך”
“When you go out to war against your enemy ….”
War – it is something we try our best to avoid, yet, we know it to be a reality of our national existence. We understand the difficult truth that national survival often entails difficult battles. Yet, the Torah also understands that not everyone is fit for battle. As the Jewish army prepares to meet its enemy, the Kohen stands before the assembled troops and announces those who are exempt and ordered to return home.
“And the officers shall speak to the people, saying, what man is there who has built a new house and has not [yet] inaugurated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man inaugurate it. And what man is there who has planted a vineyard, and has not [yet] redeemed it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man redeem it. And what man is there who has betrothed a woman and has not [yet] taken her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the war, and another man take her (Devorim 20:5-7).”
What is the common denominator between these exempted individuals? Each of these men will be focused on something other than the battle. For the soldier to be effective he must think of nothing other than subduing the enemy. If his thoughts are diverted to home, family, or if he longs to enjoy the literal fruits of his labor – he becomes a liability and puts his fellow soldiers in danger. The Kohen orders these individuals to leave the front and serve the war effort from home.
However, there is one additional exemption that is particularly intriguing; “And the officers shall continue to speak to the people and say, “What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, that he should not cause the heart of his brothers to melt, as his heart (Devorim 20:8).”
The Talmud (Sotah 44a) quotes two opinions as to the meaning of “fearful and fainthearted.” Rabbi Akiva explains that it literally refers to one who is scared of the “drawn sword” – this individual is simply too scared to fight. Rabbi Yossi HaGlili explains that it refers to someone who is fearful of the sins he has committed. The solider is concerned that as a result of his sinful behavior, he may not deserve spiritual protection during battle. What types of sin are we discussing? The Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) answers that we are referring to one who speaks between putting on the Tefillin of the arm and the Tefillin of the head. Such an individual has committed a sin that excuses him from going to battle. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) explains that it refers to one who speaks between Yishtabach (the concluding blessing of Psukei D’Zimra, introductory psalms in the morning service) and Yotzer Or (the opening blessing of the blessings of Shema). An individual who spoke during these prohibited times during prayer would not go to battle.
How are we to understand these two views? Although neither of these behaviors is “praiseworthy,” they hardly seem to represent the type of sinful behavior for which one would worry about losing Divine protection during battle.
Rav Gershon Stern (1861-1936) in his sefer Yalkut Gershuni explains that there are two components to waging a successful war; skilled officers to plan strategy and brave soldiers who are physically capable of executing the commands. If everyone is an officer then there may be detailed plans and incredible strategy, but there is no one to carry out the orders. However, if everyone is a soldier, there will be a flurry of chaotic activity but no strategic framework. The synergistic relationship and partnership between leadership and the men on the ground is required in order to be successful.
It is the same in life. We have ideas, ideals, beliefs, and values. We each possess a particular life hashkafa (outlook) and have a picture in our mind’s eye as to how these values should inform the way we live. However, sometimes there is a disconnect between what I believe and know and what I do and perform. Our most important life task is to make sure that what we believe is clearly mirrored in how we live. Values and beliefs are hollow if they are not expressed in the way one behaves and conducts oneself.
This idea is symbolized in the Tefillin. The Shel Yad (Tefillin of the arm) represents action, while the Shel Rosh (Tefillin of the head) represents thought. If a person speaks between putting on the Shel Yad and the Shel Rosh, he is interrupting the connection between belief and action.
In the same vein, the blessing of Yishtabach is a beautiful praise to God, in which we recognize the multi-faceted dimensions of God’s splendor in the world. Following this blessing we recite “Yotzer or u’borei choshech, He who fashions light and creates darkness,” which discusses the fact that God created the world and has given us a mandate to build beautiful and meaningful lives. If we sing God’s praises but fail to build a life where He is a dominant fixture, then our praise is empty.
Both the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi are echoing the same sentiment. God accepts the fact that we have and will sin. He understands that we are frail and subject to temptation, and as a result, He does not ask us to be perfect. What God does ask is for us to demonstrate sincerity; if we “believe” in something, we must be ready to act on it as well. If we commit ourselves to a certain set of values and ideals, we must make sure that we are ready to live them. We must make sure that our beliefs inform the way we live and are apparent in the actions in which we engage.
If there is a disconnect between what I believe and what I do, God asks me not to fight His battles. It is only those who do not speak between the Shel Yad and the Shel Rosh, only those who do not converse between Yishtabach and Yotzer, who have earned the right to defend the honor of God.
This message resonates with acute importance during this month of introspection. As we continue to take a spiritual accounting of what we have accomplished and in which areas we must improve, we must take the time to analyze and review our beliefs. What do I stand for? What do I believe in? What is important to me? What are my priorities? After answering these questions, we must make sure that these answers are not just contained in the words we use, but must also be apparent in the things we do and the lives we lead. (Reprinted from 5778)
“You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” (Devorim 16:18)
The beauty of our Torah lies in its ability to convey profound, life-enhancing messages in a nuanced and gentle manner. Moshe instructs us to set up judicial systems in each of our communities. The judges must be just, pious, and upright and dedicate themselves to upholding the rule of law. They may not give preferential treatment to one litigant over the other, and their conduct both in and out of the court must be beyond reproach. They must overcome their fear of the powerful and not instinctively side with the poor. Their ultimate allegiance is to God, the Torah, and the creation and preservation of a just society. The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), sees an additional, spiritual, and interpersonal message in this verse. During this month of Elul, we prepare for the upcoming Days of Judgement, Yimei HaDin. We ask God for mercy and compassion. We ask our Father to look at us through the Divine lens of rachamim (compassion) and not through the prism of din (justice). How do we “convince” God to make this shift? After all, if we have done something wrong, if we committed a relationship trespass against God, what right do we have to ask for the mercy? If we committed the “crime,” are we not deserving of the punishment?
The Rebbe explains that our actions in this world impact and inform the way God acts towards us (the Baal Shem Tov explains that God is like our shadow (Hashem Tzilcha –Psalms 121:5); meaning, just as my shadow mimics my every move, so too God’s reaction towards me is a reflection of my actions towards others). Thus, if we want Divine compassion and mercy we must extend those very traits and behaviors towards others. If we want God to give us the benefit of the doubt, we must extend that same courtesy to others. If we want God to bestow blessing upon us, we must go out of our way to bestow upon others. If we want God to help us in difficult times, we must be ready to roll up our sleeves and help another in their time of need.
This is the meaning of the above mentioned verse. “Shoftim V’Shotrim Titen Lecha B’chol She’arecha, (you shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in your cities).” We each have the ability to influence Divine judgment through the judgements we make within our own city, within our own world. “V’shaftu Es Ha’am Mishpat Tzedek (you shall judge the people righteously).” If we judge the other with compassion, if we judge the other with mercy, if we give the other the benefit of the doubt, we will bring down Divine compassion from above.
It is during this sacred month that we must prepare ourselves to give an accounting of the past year and to ask for another year in which we can accomplish and be productive. We all need a bit of Divine compassion, rachamim, to help us through this process. We learn from this opening verse that the best way to convince God to take care of us is to take care of one another. If we shower compassion, mercy, and love upon one another, if we are a bit less critical of one another, we will be privileged to receive a generous dose of rachamim from our Father above.
Let us learn this lesson, let us live this lesson, and in its merit, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. (Reprinted from 5778)