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October 23, 2016 / 21 Tishri, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘sins’

Redeeming Relevance: Moving On and the Sins of Omission

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

Moving on to new ways of doing things is not easy. Habit and routine are comfortable and allow us to know what to expect. Since there is so much that we can’t foresee in our lives, predictable work allows us some measure of the stability that we commonly prefer.

It is true that too much routine can be smothering and create tremendous ennui, but almost no one would want to live a life completely devoid of schedule, where each meal would be eaten at a different time and every day would bring an expectation to perform a completely unfamiliar task. At the same time, too much of our lives are determined by inertia. We do things because we have done them in the past and they have provided us some measure of satisfaction. There is wisdom to the idea of not fixing something that is not broken, but there is even more wisdom in continuing to think about new possibilities.

Those who, like myself, question the political order of Western democracies are often met with the supposedly irrefutable question, “Isn’t it better than anything else we have had up until now?” I usually respond, “Does that mean that nothing better can ever exist in the future?” Perhaps perfection will one day come but, until that time, mankind owes it to itself to keep thinking.

Indeed, this is the gist of R. Baruch haLevi Epstein’s comment about the importance of death, saying that leaving the same people around eternally would lead to stagnation. People are comfortable with what they have known for a long time and at some point stop thinking creatively. At that point, there is a need for a new generation, less used to that situation, and, hence, more willing to think about new ways of doing things.

Even creative writing can become not so creative. In commercial terms, a writer who has found receptivity to a certain work will often reproduce the same thing many times over simply because he knows that it will meet with success. In one of rock music’s most brutally honest lyrics, The Who sang, “I write the same old song with a few new lines and everybody wants to cheer it” – commercial success often comes at the price of creative waste.

Indeed, one of the key lessons of this time of year is actually to know when to move on. We are bidden to not get overly comfortable even with the patterns that bring us reasonable success. For we too often forget that the season of repentance is not only about things we have done wrong – sins of commission – but perhaps even more about coming to terms with not having done things better – sins of omission. We are willing to stick with “good enough,” especially if it is better than the past. According to the insight of R. Epstein above, this is a sure way to be slated for death. And should God choose to spare us, hoping that we still have something new and better to give, that opportunity is not granted forever.

In the past, I have written that creativity – that is to say, the willingness to chart a new path – is the very essence of man. These new paths, however, need not be so dramatic – it is sometimes the question of a broader smile, a warmer greeting or a new way of relating to a particular problem or opportunity. Neither do we need to improve everything all at once. But too often, we pass over the very things that we have the greatest chance of successfully improving, claiming that in this area of my life, things are good enough.

As we approach Yom Kippur, it is time for us to think creatively about what we can do better. It may literally be a choice between life and death.

Rabbi Francis Nataf

Sins, Sculptors & Circumcision

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

Elul is here. The Day of Judgment is coming. If our minds and hearts are awake, we should presently be thinking about how we can prepare ourselves for the big court case. As we all surely know, the avodah of Elul is teshuva. We will make no pretensions about trying to compress what needs to be said on that topic into 1,200 words. To learn that process one needs a Shaarei Teshuva and a rebbe. However, we will try to gain a Torah-true perspective that is specific to this time of year which will hopefully inspire us to take the next step of actually working on doing teshuva.

For those of you who follow this column regularly, you are already aware of our modus operandi of looking for hints in the tribes of Israel and in the mazalos. Since each month is aligned with a particular shevet and constellation, we can inform ourselves of the qualities of the month through them.

The mazel of Elul is Besulah – Virgo the Virgin. Let’s make the fair assumption that the maiden is the icon after whom we should model ourselves. What is special about a besulah? Well, we do find that our Sages use a besulah as the symbol of purity. She is the untouched maiden, pristine in her innocence. However, one could ask a fair question. Does Judaism really put chastity up on a pedestal? Other religions might view it as an ideal, but the Torah believes that while purity is commendable for a particular time and stage, it is appropriate and even praiseworthy to move on at a certain point. Nobody wants to remain a besulah her whole life. So what precisely is the message we are supposed to learn from the maiden?

Before we answer this question, let’s analyze Elul’s tribe – Gad. The Midrash describes that one of Gad’s unique qualities is that he was the only one of the shevatim to be born circumcised. Ostensibly, this fact would immediately catapult Gad to sainthood and make him a prime candidate for role model of the month. However, if we take a look at the Sefer HaChinuch’s understanding of the mitzvah of milah, we may be more hesitant. “(Why did Hashem make man incomplete [i.e. uncircumcised] in the womb? Is Hashem’s handiwork deficient?) The reason Hashem created man deficient is because He wanted the perfection to be made by the hand of man himself.” We see from the Sefer HaChinuch that there is a great benefit of being born without a milah. So is there really any lesson that we can learn from the alignment of the circumcised baby with the month of Elul?

In order to answer our questions let’s tell a little story. There was once a great sculptor who was world-renowned for his beautiful sculptures. From animal statuettes, to larger-than-life busts of historical figures, to intricate carvings of flowers, there was nothing he couldn’t make. His son wanted to join the business, but nothing he sculpted had the precision or exactitude that his father’s work contained. The boy asked his father “How do you produce such beautiful work, while I seem to be completely inept?” The sculptor explained “When you work, you try to carve the marble until it takes on the shape you desire. But I look inside the marble, and when I see the image that is trapped inside, I chip away at the blockages it until it is revealed.”

The nimshal is as follows. The definition of a human being is his soul. The neshama is hewn from beneath G-d’s holy throne and is replete with spiritual beauty and splendor. Each and every one of us is made in the image of Hashem and we consequently have innumerable holy traits. So why don’t people appear that way? Why do most people (ourselves included) seem to be base, materialistic, and self-centered? The answer is, our essence is covered over with all sorts of blockages. We have sunk into the ungodly world of self-service and done aveiros which create thick, dense barriers between us and our Creator. If we would only clear away these obstructions, our beautiful neshama would shine forth and cleave to Hashem in the most sublime fashion.

Now we can answer our earlier questions. It may be true that the besulah has yet to fulfill certain positive mitzvos. But the focus of Elul is not so much about building on our initial holiness as it is about restoring ourselves to that original level. Since Elul is the month of teshuvah, we must make the pure maiden our role model as we remind ourselves that we have a pristine beginning. Although we may not avoid life in our struggle to remain pure, we can always work to return to that initial purity with which we were all created.

By now we can answer what it is we should learn from Gad. Although it is true that we are enjoined to perfect ourselves, it is essential to recall that a human being already has some intrinsic perfection within his person. While there may indeed be a foreskin covering over our holy selves, it is only ever an appendage and not an intrinsic flaw. While we must indeed search for our flaws, we must also recognize that all we need is to scrape them away to reveal the godly image hovering beneath the surface.

Let’s sum it up as follows. Teshuva is often translated as “repentance.” This word has the connotation of feeling sorry, as it is related to the word “penitent.” However, a more accurate translation would be “returning to the original and rightful place” (as in hashavas aveida – returning a lost object to its original and rightful owner). When we say Elul is the month of teshuva, we mean that it is now the time to erase our sins so we can return the original and rightful level at which we began. Somewhere beneath all the grime there is a tzelem Elokim, and if we can keep our eye on the beautiful image within, we will be able to clean away the blockages until the image is revealed.

Shaya Winiarz

For Better or for Worse

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

It’s time to move out of our homes and into our holy humble sukkahs. Now is the time when we renew our relationship with God, who has chosen us to form an inseparable eternal union – a marriage between the children of Yisrael and the Master of the Universe.

The Torah portion of Nitzavim, which is read just before the New Year, reveals to us that Hashem is our personal “husband,” for better or for worse. Rashi explains (Devarim 29:12) that we were presented with a covenant and a curse: “Since we are forever bound together, let Me teach you how to make Me happy.”

Nitzavim goes on to prophesize everything that has transpired during these thousands of years. This is highlighted by non-Jews gasping and stating, “Why has God caused this land to become desolate? Because they have forsaken God’s covenant.” Thus, on Rosh Hashanah we think of our past year’s sins. The sound of the shofar awakens our emotions. Then ten days of introspection and repentance bring on the great and awesome day of Kippur, of Atonement.

Consider: our God is perfect, and we are anything but. We may have been envious or lustful, or worshipped money, status or a host of other vices. Now we humbly return home to our Love. If we repent out of fear, our sins are forgiven. But if we repent because we truly love our Maker, he gives us an amazing reward – our sins become mitzvahs!

Hashem simply goes beyond the letter of the law in His love for us.

The Holy Ben Ish Chai points out that if you go beyond the four letters of the Hebrew word hadin (the judgment), you get to the Hebrew word sukkah. (The four Hebrew letters that come after the letters in hadin are the letters in the word sukkah). The sukkah is where we arrive after Yom Kippur, free of sins, under the wings of God’s Holy Presence.

Note that the first time sukkah is mentioned in the Torah, it is referring to the stalls our forefather Yaakov built for his animals. Why? Because when Yaakov arrived in Shechem with his family, he built a beis medrash for himself for Torah learning, but for his animals, his “wealth,” he built simple huts.

Yaakov took his children to the window and said, “Look at how I treat my wealth, dear children. Wealth is temporary; like the sukkah, it doesn’t go with you to the next world. But here in this house of Torah, we accumulate the mitzvahs that stay with us – which are eternal.”

We have now received our “new heads” for the coming year, as implied by the words Rosh Hashanah, head for the year, and Yom Hazikaron, a day of resetting our memory apparatus. We are cleansed of our sins on Yom Kippur, after which we enter, with our entire body, into our sukkah. We enter this mitzvah where we achieve oneness with our Lover – Hashem, Blessed be He.

What is it about the Nation of Israel that attracts the love of the One God Who rules the universe?

I came upon an answer on Rosh Chodesh Elul as I prayed the silent benedictions. We bless the day in the following way: “Mikadesh Yisrael v’roshei chodoshim – He sanctifies Israel and the first day of all months.” But it can literally mean “He sanctifies Yisrael and “brand new heads.”

Our nation is forever ready to admit our mistakes and begin all over. With the coming of each new moon, we are aware that we may start afresh.

This is also evident in our morning declaration of Modeh Ani, the origin of which is in the book of Eichah (3:23) which states, “Hashems kindness is new every morning – great is Your belief [in us, to improve in the coming day]. One of the reasons Hashem loves His people is that they are always willing to start over.

Two small examples that are actually big were related to me by Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, shlita, head of the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where I am currently studying.

The first: A man survived hell in a concentration camp only to discover that his entire family had perished – parents, siblings, wife and children. Everyone.

Dov Shurin

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/dov-shurin-columns/for-better-or-for-worse/2013/09/18/

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